I was a rummager as a child, a silent little ghost who slipped in and out of rooms in the pursuit of books like a breeze under a door. I had a few friends, but time spent in each other's company outside school hours was infrequent and I spent a lot of time living in my imagination. I was best friends with Katy Carr, Sally J. Freedman, Anne of Green Gables, Jo March and Scout Finch, hanging around with these fictional girls and trying to incorporate parts of their personalities into my own. I wanted Anne Shirley's gumption, though much like the lovable redhead herself, I was hard pushed to explain exactly what that was. I wanted the courage of Jo March, always pushing the boundaries of what a girl could do and still be accepted by her peers. Like Katy Carr, I wanted to become wise and kind and loving, the heart of a busy household and beloved by all. And I wanted Scout Finch's father.
My guess is that I've read "To Kill A Mockingbird" at least 20 times. I first read it when I was far too young to understand it, curled on my uncle's bed around the book I'd hunted down in my mum's wardrobe or my aunty's chest of drawers or my grandad's work bag in my uncontrollable need to read something, anything. I can narrow my age down to maybe 7 or 8, given that my mum and I were living with my grandparents, both of whom were still alive, and that I'm pretty sure our Rach hadn't been born yet. Too young, anyway, to fully comprehend things like rape and racism and the mentality of people living in small Alabama towns which had nothing to fear but fear itself. But something about that book spoke to me then, telling me to persevere and to keep coming back until it all made sense.
It would be easy to say that the character of Atticus Finch appealed to a young girl without a father and offered a literary relationship which was missing in my real life, but I don't think that's strictly accurate. I did, after all, have the most amazing grandfather a child would ever need, a man who made sure every day of his life that I never for a second felt the absence of a father figure. I think it's more truthful to say that in Atticus, I saw reflected the only man I ever called "Dad," a docker with ginger eyebrows and room in his heart for his 5 children and all the grandchildren they could produce. Atticus was a lawyer and my grandad had had to curtail his education to contribute to his family, but despite the scholarship my grandad never got to take, he shared with Atticus Finch a wisdom and integrity that cannot be taught in schools or universities.
As I got a bit older and started pulling away from family in the turbulence of puberty, To Kill A Mockingbird and Atticus were stabilisers, able to pull me out of the maelstrom of my hormones to a more innocent, less terrifying time. I gained a deeper understanding of the book and its motifs even as my own body made me a stranger to myself, a young girl with the curves of a woman and a mind caught between childhood and a future which was at once alien and appealing. It would pull me back to my roots even as my terrible attitude pushed me away from the people who loved me, reminding me of what I had waiting for me once I was through this driving blizzard of emotion and mood swings and overwhelming, inexplicable anger.
The blizzard was still raging, harder than ever, when I lost him aged 13. I'd been so caught up in my own problems, moving to a tiny town in the wilds of Scotland, 8 hours and a world away from my life in England, that I didn't even know he was sick. He hadn't been well for a long time, diabetes taking part of his foot and the loss of my nanny two years before taking his fighter's spirit, but I don't think anyone knew how bad things were until they were very bad indeed. Too bad.
For a few years after he died, I refused to speak about him. While my head knew that this was a betrayal of his love, to hide away the feelings and not open myself and them to scrutiny was the only way I could deal with the loss of my biggest supporter, my strength and the man who taught me how wonderful fathers can be. Keeping him locked away hurt, but not as much as acknowledging that he wasn't coming back.
Throughout this painful period, I had my book. Wandering through its pages, I could enjoy again the relationship between a father and his little girl without having to accept that for me, things had changed. I clung to Atticus as a baby clings to a finger, desperately avoiding letting go without quite knowing why. Of course, I read other books - hundreds, possibly thousands of them - in this period, but it was Mockingbird to which I always returned, allowing its now familiar pages to soothe and calm. When the world came too close, I retreated between its covers and hid until I felt ready to emerge, rested and fortified with the same strength I used to draw from my grandad's arms.
Now I'm 31. To Kill A Mockingbird and I have been together for over 20 years, yet I frequently find myself without a copy of my own. On discovering that a friend or acquaintance hasn't been introduced to the beauty of this book, written through the eyes of a child and deceptively simple, I feel compelled to press my copy upon them, hoping that they'll find in it something of what I did. Of course, people don't. The readers amongst them have their own best friend books, the books to which they return when feathers are ruffled and weeks have been long and life just feels like it's too much. But, given that I never seem to get a copy back, I have to assume that they do find something in its pages that speaks to them as it did to me, and I don't mind buying it yet again.