To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is ostensibly about a white man defending a black man accused of raping a white girl in the Alabama of the 1930s. But it has so many more layers. It is about irrational and ludicrous attitudes of the pre-civil rights south. It is also about one decent man trying to do the right thing and about children discovering the strength of character of their father.
The story is told through the eyes of Scout, the young daughter of wise, warm, and gentle lawyer, Atticus Finch. The events of the story take place from her sixth to almost ninth year, and at first the book seems a memoir to carefree childhood as she and her older brother Jem and friend Dill fabricate new schemes to try to see elusive neighbor Boo Radley or to entice him out of his house. In fact, at first I was tempted to grow impatient with this part of the book, wondering when we were going to get to the “real” story, but I had faith that the author had a a purpose to this section. And, indeed, we are introduced to the family, neighbors, town and culture. Most of all, the character of Atticus is revealed through small conversations and interchanges.
Slowly awareness begins to dawn that trouble is brewing for Scout’s father. When she hears him being defamed, she defends his honor the only way she knows how, by fighting. Atticus tells Scout, “You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change…it’s a good one even if it does resist learning.” She later overhears a conversation he has with his brother about the case, the impossibility of it but the necessity of it, the fact his children are going to have a hard time of it, but he hopes they come through without bitterness and without the prejudices of the town, then he calls to her in her hideout and tells her to go on to bed. She says, “I never figured out how Atticus knew I was listening, and it was not until many years later that I realized he wanted me to hear every word he said.”Later he tells her, “It’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”
So often we want to make things as easy for our children as possible, but I was impressed that Atticus wanted his children to face the coming trials with self-control, and in addition he wanted them to love and respect their friends and neighbors even when they were in the wrong. Fighting injustice, even in people’s hearts, doesn’t justify hating those people.
It was an interesting choice, and a wise one, for the author to tell the story through a child’s eyes, through the gradual unfolding of understanding and conscience. To a child’s mind, a teacher’s denouncing of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews doesn’t line up with her disparaging remarks about black people, and the point is made in all its truth and simplicity without being didactic.
It’s sad that the book has sometimes been banned for its portrayal of black people when part of the author’s intent was to defend black people and to speak against prejudice. Her portrayal is a sketch of how it was, not how it should be. I can see holding off the reading of it for younger people. The themes are definitely for a mature reader. There is a smattering of bad language, the bulk of which occurs when Scout is trying to convince her father she picked up such words at school in the hope that he won’t send her back. I wish that language was not there, both because I don’t want to hear it, and because it is not necessary, and because it keeps some from the book who would otherwise enjoy it. I did grow up in a non-Christian family and I do know some people speak that way in real life, but still I don’t want to put such things in my mind. Normally I avoid books with bad language, but I did want to explore this classic.
For such serious and awful subject themes, there is a lot of humor and warmth in the book. I enjoyed the author’s irony and subtlety. Before reading the book, I could not understand how the title related to the subject, but it becomes clear when Atticus explains to his children why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.
I just watched the film for the first time last night. Gregory Peck is perfectly cast as Atticus. Of course, in the limited time frame of a film, many scenes were left out, and, as usual, reading the book is a much richer experience, but I did enjoy the film, too.
(This review will be linked to Semicolon‘s weekly book reviews on Saturday.)