To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
‘Scout’ Finch lives in a sleepy Southern town in the 1930s. She and her older brother, Jem, spend their days as most children do: getting into trouble and trying to make sense of the world around them. Their widowed father, Atticus, is a very hands-off parent, who treats them both like adults and stimulates their ability to think and make moral judgments for themselves. Their female parenting is mostly provided by the housekeeper, Calpurnia, with a little help from their aunt and some of the neighbors. Further stimulus is added by the yearly visit of their friend Dill, who is wildly entertaining and deceitful. The three children are obsessed by the creepy house next door, which shelters the supposedly terrifying Boo Radley, a person that they are determined to meet.
We follow Scout over several summers as she begins to understand the inequalities of the world around her. Her childish belief in truth and decency is severely tested by the case of Tom Robinson, whom her father is assigned to defend. Tom is accused of raping and beating a local girl, but his guilt or innocence is irrelevant because he is black. The case tears Scout’s world apart, mirroring the way it divides the town, leading to an unexpectedly violent and shocking conclusion.
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My previous experience with a Pulitzer Prize winner was a slog through The Grapes of Wrath when I was at high school. I have to admit that I was probably not old enough to appreciate the writing, nor did I have any experience of the type of poverty described, so it was mostly wasted upon me at the time. Having read Miss Lee’s masterpiece, I feel much more inclined to revisit Steinbeck now that I have aged somewhat and gained a little perspective.
It is very rare for me to refer to a title as a masterpiece, but I feel that the term is highly appropriate in this case. From the very first paragraph I knew that I was reading a work of the highest quality, a feeling that I very rarely get when I begin a book: it usually takes a little longer for me to be sucked into the author’s world and fall in love with it. Miss Lee grabbed me by the collar and placed me firmly on the dusty street outside Boo Radley’s creaky, old house with Scout, Jem and Dill. She captured the setting with such skill that I could not only see the house, but smell the heat and feel the slight give of the rotting floorboards of the front porch. I can only recall one other title that made me suffer the stupefying humidity of the southern USA in the same way as this: Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin. Although his title is an entirely different genre, they both share a slow, meandering path that reminds me of the Southern drawl and the winding of the great Mississippi. They both capture the essence of Southern gentility, which is made more striking by the casual cruelty and racism on show. However, whereas Mr Martin’s cruelest characters are vampires, in Scout’s story the cruelty is even more shocking because it is perpetrated by supposedly ‘normal’ people.
Scout herself is a wonderful narrator, full of the casual judgment and total confidence of the very young. She is appalled by the education system, which seems to be designed to reduce all the children to tears of boredom, and highly indignant that her father is criticized for encouraging her to read. I probably find Scout so relatable because I recognize my younger self in her a great deal. She is forthright and head-strong, mistakenly supposing that her family is ‘normal’. She struggles to understand why people are dishonest or cruel and she often speaks without first thinking through all the possible meanings of a situation. As a child with chronic ‘foot-in-mouth’ disease, I found this very, very familiar: if there was ever anything that my parents would pray that we would not comment upon you could guarantee that I would open my big mouth and embarrass us all! Now in my forties I am slightly better at remembering to think first, but I still share Scout’s bewilderment at the workings of the world.
While many words have been written about the wonderful writing, setting, plotting and characters that comprise this title, it is the central theme of racism that has surely provoked the most debate. Presumably written in the 1950s, the book was published before the Civil Rights Movement had gained more equality for African-Americans and when racism was still an open and established way of life. As a Brit, this is one aspect of American culture that I find the most different from my own life experiences. This is not to say that there is no racism in the UK: I was subjected to anti-English prejudice when I worked in Scotland. The British automatically judge people based upon their regional accent, skin color or national origin because Xenophobia is part of the human condition and is, therefore, present the world over. However, the issue of slavery does not have the same impact on British culture, mainly because slaves were not held in the British Isles themselves. They were owned by the very wealthy and worked on plantations in other parts of the Empire, so the majority of British people had never even seen a slave. However, as several people point out to Scout, even the lowest of the low in the South have someone to look down upon: the subhuman ex-slaves. This places African-Americans in a uniquely derided position, as we see when Scout’s teacher sympathizes with the German persecution of the Jews.
Depressingly, I have heard perfectly nice people say things that sound terribly similar to some of the views expressed in this book. Some say that “Racism is dead” in the US, but that is not my experience and I believe that refusing to acknowledge its continued existence is massively counterproductive. One only needs to look at how disrespectful some people have been to President Obama to see how much prejudice still needs to be overcome. Unfortunately, we still see incidents that remind us that a man can be considered guilty simply because of the color of his skin, just like Tom Robinson.