Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine-a review

Erskine, Kathryn. Mockingbird, Puffin (reprint), 2011.

I am highly suspicious when any book boldly claims an allusion to To Kill a Mockingbird. In Search of Mockingbird (Ellsworth, Henry Holt, 2007) delivered neither the style nor the cohesiveness to lay claim to any similarity to Lee’s 1960 classic, beyond its self-aggrandizing title. I am also highly suspicious when any author decides to write from any point of view other than her own (which, yes, makes me suspicious of almost every fiction book I read). When I read that Erskine was writing from the point of view of a fifth-grade girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, I nearly eschewed the book altogether. Let’s face it, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Haddon, Doubleday, 2005) is a rare achievement. And yet, I was curious to see just how an author would even attempt to accomplish a book with such brave aspirations.

Erskine nailed it. Caitlin Smith’s brother Devon was gunned down in a middle school shooting. Having already lost his wife to cancer, and now Devon to unspeakable tragedy, Caitlin’s dad is ill-equipped to help himself, let alone his daughter, who struggles just to interpret the expressions on people’s faces. Mrs. Brooke, Caitlin’s special education teacher, tries to help Caitlin come to terms with the changes that have taken place since “The Day Our Life Fell Apart.” Along with Caitlin, the reader receives an education in being Empathetic and finding Closure.

Here is the beauty of the book: the themes of the two works are the same, yet Erskine leads the reader to this realization rather than force-feeding him the obvious. In the chapter that follows the revelation that Devon’s favorite movie was To Kill a Mockingbird and his nickname for Caitlin was Scout, Mrs. Brooke and Caitlin discuss her classmates:

If you put yourself in their shoes you can feel what they’re feeling.
I look at their shoes.
It’s an expression, she says. What we’re working on Caitlin is empathy.
Is that like emotion?
Sort of.
No thank you. I’m not good with emotion.

As Caitlin struggles to learn what empathy is, the reader is challenged to re-think her own empathy in a more meaningful way. As Erskine shares in the Author’s Note, “Understanding people’s difficulties and—just as crucial—helping people understand their own difficulties and teaching them concrete ways to help themselves will help them better deal with their own lives and, in turn, ours.”

Mockingbird is a novel that earns its title. Sure, there are some obvious allusions. The school principal’s name is Mrs. Harper, Devon taught Caitlin that it is wrong to hurt innocent people. But Erskine also introduces new layers and nuances to a very simple message. There is an art teacher in whose eyes Caitlin sees sadness for the first time, a little boy named Michael who befriends her, peers who mock Caitlin for her unusual ways. As Caitlin learns to walk in someone else’s shoes, the reader learns to walk in hers. The lesson resonates because we’ve heard it before, but it never hurts to learn it again, through someone else’s point of view. That’s what great books allow us to do.

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