This book has been a classic since the day it was published over fifty years ago;so this post is not a book review. These are just my feelings on reading it last week for the first time.
Since I didn’t go to high school in the U.S , I never read many of the books that are required reading for American high schoolers. Thus ,I never read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men ( though I did read East of Eden when I was a kid ). Nor did I read Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 , J.P. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Nowadays , I am helping a high schooler with his English and I have had to read them all , however belatedly. While all of them are very good , the one that moved me the most is the last-named , To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a masterpiece !
The best writing flows so seamlessly , seems so right , that one is swept along by the narrative and does notice the writer’s artifice or the effort that has gone into the writing. So it is with To Kill a Mockingbird. The story itself is simple and is related by Scout , the daughter of Atticus Finch , the leading lawyer and a prominent citizen of Maycomb , Alabama. The narrator is the grown-up Scout though the action takes place during the height of the Great Depression when Scout is just six years old. For the first hundred pages or so, Lee paints a picture of Maycomb as it was in the thirties: sleepy , languorous in the summer heat , comfortable though impoverished .Through Scout, we are introduced to a host of characters : her widowed father Atticus and her older brother Jem , young Dill Harris who lives in the house next door during the summer holidays , their black housekeeper Calpurnia , their neighbors the kindly Maudie Atkinson and the shrewish , sickly elderly Mrs . Dubose , the well-meaning but inexperienced teacher Miss Caroline , the vicious Burris Ewell and the Radleys who live next door , particularly the mysterious Boo Radley whom nobody has seen since he stabbed his father with a scissors many , many years ago. Scout and her brother , Jem think of their father as old and past his prime , not like the other fathers who are very much into manly sports like hunting . Slowly , they come to realize that , in fact , their father has hidden depths and is a man to be admired. This part of the book also portrays Jem ,and particularly Scout growing up and coming of age as they leave behind the innocence of childhood. Though we don’t realize it at the time , it also foreshadows what is to come .
Atticus Finch agrees to defend Tom Robinson , a black man accused of raping a white woman , Mayella Burris, even though he knows that, in doing so, he will incur the hostility of his fellow townspeople . He mounts a cogent , well-reasoned defense to prove Tom Robinson’s innocence even though the verdict is a foregone conclusion. There is no chance that the word of a black man will be taken over that of a white woman. Tom Robinson is found guilty and later killed while trying to escape. The town tries to move on from the incident but not so the evil Bob Ewell, Mayella ‘s father who is shamed by what has happened. He vows revenge and on Halloween night , he attacks Jem and Scout as they are returning home from the school pageant. He is thwarted as the children receive help from a most unexpected source, the reclusive Bo Radley.The horrifying experience and its aftermath mark the final step of Scout Finch’s coming of age , a process that began with the trial of Tom Robinson.
The book is deeply felt, a distillation of the experiences and thoughts of Nell Harper Lee as she was growing up in Monroeville , Alabama in the early thirties. Atticus Finch was modeled on her own father and Dill was based on Truman Capote , who was the kid next door for many summers. ( What a coincidence that two such famous authors were neighbors). Atticus Finch is a paragon of virtue and many high schoolers use him as an example in their SAT essays. I appreciate Atticus too but I also love the character of Scout . The relationship between Atticus and Scout is beautifully delineated and I like to imagine that the fictional Scout was the young Harper Lee.
Some critics have faulted the novel saying that no six-year-old kid could be as precocious as Scout Finch.It is a petty complaint. For one thing , the bookish Atticus trains his daughter well . For another , it is story is narrated not by a six-year-old but by the grown up Scout , looking back over the distance of years. I prefer to admire Harper Lee’s genius in being able to capture the innocence of childhood and of a time and place .
Wonderful also is the pacing of the novel, so perfect that a reader just suspends his critical faculties absorbed as he is by the story. Events occur so naturally that it is like floating down the river in an inner tube on a summer’s day. It is difficult to believe that Harper Lee spent a decade writing the book ; her prose seems so effortless. There are many powerful moments which linger in the reader’s mind long after he puts down the book. Many have singled out the scene when Atticus , having lost the case , packs his briefcase and makes his way out the deserted courtroom. The Negroes in the balcony rise to their feet in silent tribute and one of them , the Reverend Sykes, tells Scout ” Miss Jean Louise , stand up. Your father’s passin’.” I loved the moment when Tom Robinson, who is being cross-examined, is asked why he did all this chopping work for Mayella without taking one penny and he replies ” I felt right sorry for her , she seemed to try more than the rest of em …” The idea of a desperately poor black man having the decency , the humanity, to feel sorry for a white woman and to do her chores for free is touching beyond belief.
There are two other things that I loved about the book. One is the sly sense of humor that permeates it and lightens the treatment of a grim subject. The other is the dialogues between Scout and her father , and again between her and the kindly Maudie . They are spare and incisive but sparkle like jewels. For instance, ” There are some kind of men who are so busy worrying about the next world that they’ve never learned to live in this one , and you can look down the street and see the results .” ( Miss Maudie) . Those words are as true today as when they were first written.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a searing indictment of racial prejudice in the South in the first half of the last century. What is most remarkable is that it was written by a white woman from that same society at a time when those attitudes were still prevalent . The book was written in 1960 ; the civil rights moment ,the sit-ins in Birmingham and Mobile , the bus boycotts and the end of segregation came later. The book stirred the conscience of the country and showed us what was wrong with the system.
I don’t always agree with the choices of books that are required reading for our high schoolers. I am mystified by choices such as Brave New World ( Aldous Huxley)and A Separate Peace ( John Knowles). I don’t see the relevance of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Jane Eyre ( Charlotte Bronte) ,orWuthering Heights ( Emily Bronte) ,and A Lesson before Dying( Ernest J. Gaines), while it has meaning, is grim .
I have no such reservations about To Kill a Mockingbird. It is beautifully written , its message is still relevant and it reminds us of an era in our history that we need to remember. It is one of the very few books that I would want to read again.