'To Kill a Mockingbird' still resonates

Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version. Photo Credit: Universal Studios

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Somehow, Shari Raduazzo's high school years went by without ever finding Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" on her assigned reading list. But Raduazzo, who now teaches English at Seaford High School, is making sure her students don't miss the chance to discover the enduring novel first published more than 50 years ago.

"I was 30 when I read it, and I thought it was the best book I ever read," says Raduazzo, 46, of Westbury. "And I have lovingly, reverently and enthusiastically taught this book for the last 16 years. If you ask me what happens in any of the 31 chapters, I can tell you. I can convince you how [the main character] Atticus Finch is the greatest father in all literature . . . and that what I learned about courage, I learned from Atticus and Mrs. Dubose [a neighbor addicted to painkillers]."

Raduazzo's passion is typical of fans of Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the dramatic story of Atticus Finch -- a Depression-era lawyer in the deep South who defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a young white woman -- and the effect that incident had on Finch's son, Jem, and tomboyish daughter, Scout. The novel's themes of racial prejudice, inner courage, social class and morality resonate with readers as strongly today as they did when the book made its debut in 1960. Early baby boomers were in their teens when the novel rode the bestseller lists for 88 weeks. It has sold more than 30 million copies.

Equally beloved is the Oscar-winning film adaptation, which is celebrating its golden anniversary. The American Film Institute ranked "Mockingbird" No. 25 on its 2007 list of the greatest movies of all time (in 2003, Atticus Finch topped the institute's list of greatest screen heroes). The film premiered on Christmas Day 1962, and earlier this week, it was shown at several local theaters to commemorate its 50 years. (It's also being aired on cable TV by Turner Classic Movies on Wednesday at 8 p.m. See box.)

The book and movie made a lasting impression on many in the Act 2 generation. Some, like Raduazzo, feel compelled to share it with younger generations. Others enjoy re-reading the thought-provoking story, can recite the colorful characters as though they'd just read the book, and recall the emotions stirred by the book years ago.

 

'Like revisiting an old friend'

At age 16, Michael Masciale thought "To Kill a Mockingbird" was the best book he ever read. Now 48, Masciale, who lives in Bay Shore, recently read the book again.

"It was like revisiting an old friend," says Masciale, an information technology director. "This book made such an impression on me the first time I read it that I have actually had dreams that I was interacting with Jem or Scout. Well, I have to say, even after reading this book a second time, I truly feel it is one of the best books I have ever read."

As much as he enjoyed "Mockingbird," he avoided seeing the movie. "I always have believed that the movies never do justice to a book. Your imagination is far superior to a movie," Masciale says. But after years of resisting, he's decided it's time to see the film version.

The book's timeless lessons in tolerance were not lost on his children, either. "The content of the book is very strong, between social status, racism, internal family struggles and the joys / struggles of youth. The book is a real page turner and very pertinent in today's society," says Aly Masciale, 20, an English major at the University of Delaware who read "To Kill a Mockingbird" in high school. "This book serves as a great lesson for all of us, past, present and future."

Michael Masciale's son, Stephen, 17, was introduced to the book in high school. "I was immediately aware of the social messages that poured out of the pages," he says. "I think everyone should read it, for it opens a world that many people may never truly experience."

 

Rekindling memories

For Mary Lou Cohalan, 70, of Bayport, the Southern setting of "To Kill a Mockingbird" rekindles memories -- both pleasant and bittersweet. "Much of the mood of the book reminds me of my childhood home," says Cohalan, who grew up in Norfolk, Va. As someone who came of age during the civil rights movement, the novel's racial elements hit a truthful note for Cohalan, who recently retired as director of the Islip Art Museum and Carriage House Workspace. Family members, she says, were among those who drew up petitions against the state of Virginia, protesting segregation in schools.

"My 1959 high school class in Norfolk was known as the 'Lost Class' because at that time we elected a governor who promised to close the public schools rather than integrate them. He won. And he closed our schools." They were reopened in February 1959 by order of a federal district court.

Cohalan regards parts of "To Kill a Mockingbird" as an indictment of the public school system. "In the first part of the book, Atticus meets with Scout's teacher, who chastises him for allowing Scout to read -- because, according to the teacher, she has learned earlier than the curriculum allows," Cohalan explains. "I presume this was Harper Lee's own experience -- an exceptional child asked to conform to standards that were mediocre, at best."

It's a theme still prevalent, she says. "These days, whenever I read about crackdowns on education by repressive regimes in the Middle East, I think of my childhood and Harper Lee's own struggle for the education she so clearly wanted."

 

She couldn't put it down

Like so many others who were assigned to read "Mockingbird" in school, Debra Caruso was introduced to the novel in the eighth or ninth grade. "I wasn't one to pick up a book at that time without being prompted, unless it was a Nancy Drew mystery," she recalls. But once she opened "Mockingbird," she couldn't put it down.

"Maybe because my parents lived through the Cold War and the blacklisting and they were children of immigrants, there was a tendency to keep out of trouble, don't get involved. I grew up saying, 'I want to get involved, I want to stand up for what I believe.' That book was one of a number that validated that feeling," says Caruso, a public relations consultant from Glen Cove.

"Certainly the hero, Atticus Finch, was such a profile in courage. He was willing to be vilified for what he was doing, and that certainly has to make an impression," she says. "And I was a tomboy when I was a kid, and I know I identified with Scout and all of the thoughts that would go through her head."

Caruso, 50, also is a huge fan of the movie that won Gregory Peck a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus, a widower raising two young children. To her, the film's rich black-and-white cinematography makes it even more haunting than the book. "Scenes like when the kids are walking through the woods [where they are attacked] didn't seem as scary in the book," she says. These days, Caruso has her own "Scout." It's the name she gave the dog she adopted five years ago.

 

'True to one's conscience'

After 16 years of discussing "Mockingbird" with students, Raduazzo still enjoys teaching younger generations about one of her favorite novels.

"I love the richness of the characters, I love what we learn from them about family love, the meaning of true courage -- and true cowardice, thanks to the Ewells [a destitute family who were key characters in the book] -- but most of all," she says, "what it means to be true to one's conscience, regardless of whether or not one stands a chance of winning."

Those are the lessons of "Mockingbird" that Raduazzo imparts to her students every year at Seaford High School. And she's also a fan of the movie, where the same lessons can be learned, despite the slightly different story line of some characters.

One character who plays a key role in both the book and the movie is Boo Radley (played by Robert Duvall), a reclusive neighbor of Jem and Scout who becomes a hero when he rescues the children from a brutal attack. For Raduazzo, the movie's next scene is one that still moves her.

"I can tell you that when Scout sees Boo Radley for the first time," she says, "and just from looking at him standing behind the bedroom door, recognizes him, smiles and says, 'Hey, Boo,' my eyes, as well as Scout's, glisten with tears."

 

Catch the movie

WHAT Golden-anniversary screening of "To Kill a Mockingbird" starring Gregory Peck in his Oscar-winning role as Atticus Finch. (The film also won Oscars for Horton Foote's screenplay and art direction.)

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 21, on TCM

INFO For more about the movie, go to imdb.com/ title/tt0056592

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