Black, White and All the Colors in Between: Reading Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine – Review by Tara Warmerdam
No one speaks of the chest in the corner, covered with a gray sheet and one end hanging off at an awkward angle. The gray sheet reminds Caitlin of a bird that cannot fly, floating and falling instead of flying through the air. Caitlin draws the chest covered with the sheet, replicating what she sees on the outside but not the empty chest she knows is hidden out of sight. This metaphor sets the tone for Mockingbird, a story of pain, loss, understanding, and hope. The novel centers on ten year old Caitlin, a high-functioning autistic girl with Asperger’s, and the loss of her brother in a tragic school shooting. The grieving experience as well as the path for healing is different for all of the characters, particularly Caitlin and her father. Erskine explores the avenues of grief and healing, particularly the difficult situation for Caitlin, with a sensitivity that brings new light to a tragedy.
Mockingbird has multiple storylines at work: the loss of Devon (Caitlin’s brother), Caitlin’s difficulty in experiencing empathy and understanding the loss of her brother, and the aftermath of a tragic school shooting that has rattled the school and community in ways that reverberate throughout the novel. With a third person point of view, the multiple storylines might overwhelm the reader. But as the story is told from Caitlin’s point of view, we see each storyline through her eyes, keeping the focus on the emotional connections throughout the novel. While it is tricky to have so much at work in the novel, it adds depth as well as many possibilities for discussions and rich text connections. Another layer to the story is To Kill A Mockingbird, present throughout the novel, as Devon’s nickname for Caitlin is “Scout” and the story is referenced at multiple points. Devon teaches Caitlin about the meaning of To Kill A Mockingbird, as “It’s wrong to shoot someone who is innocent and was never going to hurt you in the first place.” Caitlin realizes that the school shooters did not “get” the meaning of this book in their English class.
One of the strengths of this book is Caitlin’s voice. The reader witnesses Caitlin’s difficulties in understanding how those around her are coping with the tragedy of Devon’s death and the school shooting. The grief of those around Caitlin, her father, teachers, classmates, is palpable and heartbreaking. Caitlin’s character is well-developed, multi-dimensional, and complex. Erskine is adept at using finely tuned details and nuances to take the reader into the character’s world, allowing us to see, hear, and understand Caitlin’s point of view. Caitlin’s strengths and talents are apparent, as well as her challenges in understanding the emotional experiences of those around her. She has difficulty understanding why people who did not know Devon express their sorrow and sympathy; she cannot understand why unfamiliar relatives come to visit after Devon is gone; she does not understand why it is upsetting for her father when she refers to her brother as “Devon-who-is-dead.” She draws in order to make sense of the world around her, refusing color because she prefers black and white. In the world of paper and pencil, she holds tight to the things she can understand and categorize, without color or shades of gray.
Caitlin becomes fixated on the idea of Closure, an idea she discusses at length with Mrs. Brook. The idea of Closure is elusive. Finally, Caitlin understands, in black and white, the idea of Closure and “how to experience an emotional conclusion to a difficult life event.” She determines this conclusion will happen when Devon’s Eagle Scout chest is finished, as he was planning to teach Caitlin and other Boy Scouts how to woodwork. Ultimately, Caitlin’s dad decides that he is ready to work on the chest. After completing the project, it is donated to the middle school in an act which can be seen as a step toward Closure for the community as well as Caitlin and her father. In another step forward, Caitlin is ready to try pastels for the first time, adding color to her sketches.
While Mockingbird is a novel focused on Caitlin and her grief, the book is about something more than her story alone. Ultimately, this book is about empathy, people understanding each other, understanding the things in life that are not black and white, the things in color, that change, move, shift, grow and transform, and about connections, healing, acceptance. Coping with tragedy in grief is not only difficult for special needs children, but it is difficult for all. Connecting with others, embracing the unique qualities of each individual, doing our best when faced with challenges that seem insurmountable, making progress and moving forward one step at a time.
Tara Warmerdam keeps herself busy running after four children, learning Spanish, harvesting cherries, searching for half-marathons that don’t involve a lot of hills, and reading as many books as possible. She is a Language Arts Instructor in the Center for Professional Development at Fresno Pacific University. Learn more about Tara and the books she loves at The Reading Corner www.tarawarmerdam.com and Twitter @TaraWTeach.