“When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960
It was our thirteen-year-old daughter who, after finishing the book, remembered how it started. She read it first, then my wife, then me. We talked about it yesterday over breakfast. “It’s cool how the story ends where it begins,” Kenzie observed.
Dill makes his first appearance in the second paragraph: the character is based on Harper Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote. A few months ago we watched Capote together on an internet download – Kenzie was surprised to hear that Anne and I had actually discussed the ethics of downloading before first embarking on this life of petty crime. After awhile you don’t even remember whether you’re resisting corporate greed or just being greedy yourself. You just watch the movies. The book we borrowed from the English library in Nice, so we didn’t pay anything there either. It’s a wonder they haven’t made libraries illegal yet.
If Kenzie ever writes her memoirs, will the beginning of her own book resemble the first first line of this book? Living a life of exile in France is hard on her. Anne and I entertain every parent’s hope that some day she’ll regard the things we subject her to as opportunities, as building-blocks of character. Will her French childhood seem like a broken arm that never quite set right but that helped set her unique trajectory in the world? Or will it just be something she’ll always have to live with?
Parents try to write their children’s first lines for them, but in the end it’s the children who get to write their own stories from the very beginning. It wasn’t Jem’s fault; it won’t have been Kenzie’s either.