28 March 2011


Imagine you are ten years old and your older brother has been killed in a school shooting.  How would you understand?  How would you learn to cope or deal with your grief?

Now imagine that you also have Asperger's syndrome.  It is already hard enough for you to understand how to interact emotionally with your peers; they don't understand you and you don't understand them.  How would you understand grief and loss?

In Mockingbird, this is Caitlin's predicament.  She's is very intelligent, reads very well and draws far better than most adults, but she has Asperger's and her routine has been interrupted.  The most patient and understanding part of her world - her older brother, Devon - is gone.  Her school counselor tries to help her with both her regular therapy and with understanding grief.  For Caitlin, she has to understand both her own and others' grief - a tall order for a ten-year-old who has trouble understanding empathy.  In a chance meeting on the playground, she meets a younger student who lost his mother in the shooting and she decides that she will be his friend.  When he mentions that his father needs "closure," Caitlin becomes obsessed with the word and its meaning.

Mockingbird is narrated by Caitlin so we see the world through her eyes and her thoughts.  She likes absolutes, black-and-white drawings, so the unpredictable world of grief and loss - in many different shades - makes her anxious.  Caitlin loves language, the interplay of words (she also capitalizes certain words and phrases like one would proper nouns - Look At A Person, Heart - because these words are important to her).  She presses her father to finish Devon's Eagle Scout project, a wooden chest ("chest" as an object and "chest" as in the human thorax become linked in her mind), which is linked to her favorite movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Devon's nickname for her, Scout. 

Mockingbird is a wonderful novel both for the story told within the pages and the character who does the narrating.  Caitlin has a great voice and Kathryn Erskine drew on her own experience with her daughter to flesh out Caitlin's behaviors.  In an afterword, Erskine noted that she wanted to write a book about recovery, kindness, and understanding.  Erskine lives in Virginia and experienced the aftermath of the 2007 VTech campus shooting.  She has steeped Mockingbird in kindness and understanding; it is Caitlin's unique version of kindness, but it comes from the heart.

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