Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Storyteller Rex Ellis sings during a lecture about the book "To Kill a Mockingbird" as part of The Big Read initiative at UVU Tuesday.

OREM — Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" may be well written, but more importantly it changes each person who opens its cover and reads from its pages.

That's what Rex Ellis told a group gathered at the Utah Valley University library auditorium recently. Ellis, a renowned storyteller from Williamsburg, Va., was in town to help promote Orem's participation in The Big Read initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts.

"(It's) ultimately a good book to read because you won't be the same after reading it," Ellis said. "If you will understand the complexity of our past, you will marvel at the sheer capacity we have to learn from our mistakes and slowly, ever so slowly, we find our way back to what is best in all of us."

Orem residents are encouraged to come together through Oct. 17 with readers in more than 200 communities across the country to help restore reading to the center of American culture as they read and discuss Lee's novel. The Orem Public Library will sponsor more than 30 events related to the classic novel.

Ellis, the former vice president at Colonial Williamsburg and chairman of the Division of Cultural History at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, spoke of racism and inequality in the South and said he hoped he could provide some context and understanding of the importance of the book through the prism of the African-American experience.

"As I reread Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' it hearkened me back to that time in my life, growing up in the South," he said. "I was so busy being a child that I was oblivious to what was going on in the larger world. Memories that I had forgotten came flooding back as I read 'To Kill A Mockingbird."'

In effect for decades, he said, Jim Crow laws and similar legislation created a nation of segregation and inequality, and the laws paved the way for unpunished violence against blacks. He said the civil rights movement galvanized the nation like nothing else and truly tested its democracy.

"To her credit, Lee found an appropriate balance between the challenges of the times, especially for African-Americans, and allows us to look at the oppression of blacks through the eyes of three young southerners who have not yet been fully branded with the (racism) of their time."

He said readers of the book can each see something of themselves in the characters of Scout, Jem, Atticus Finch and others.

"Although it was painful in many ways, it was also good to remember days I had not thought about for a good while," Ellis said. "That's what good literature does. It connects us to universal truths, universal situations, and stories that connect us all, no matter what community we come from."

For more information about Orem's Big Read events, those interested can stop by the Orem Public Library at 58 N. State, or visit

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