Year of first publication: 1960
Year of publication for this edition: 2006
Number of pages: 323
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Sub-genres: Southern Gothic, coming-of-age, courtroom drama, historical fiction
Subjects: the American South, Alabama, civil rights, racism, growing up, law, girls, fathers, families, the Great Depression, children
Generations of schoolkids have grown up with To Kill a Mockingbird, but in the past few decades, many schools have decided to scrap this wonderful little book from their curricula and libraries. The reasons are varied; some believe the content is too mature, others are offended by the language, and some believe the depictions of racism are too strong. I can certainly understand why some parents might not want their children to read the book, but to those who have no such objections, your kids are missing out. Not only is To Kill a Mockingbird one of the best novels in the world, but the story it tells is one that every young person should hear.
Like all the great stories, it’s rather simple on the surface. The main character Atticus Finch is a country lawyer living in 1930’s Alabama with his two young children, Jem and Scout. Atticus is chosen by the court to defend Tom Robinson, a young black man who is wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. Despite the outcry from his neighbors, his friends, and even his own family, Atticus does his utmost to defend the man. Through it all, he hopes to teach his children the meanings of courage and protecting the innocent. While this is going on, the children—and their friend Dill Harris—become fascinated with their neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley. A recluse who hasn’t left his house in twenty-some-odd years, Boo is purported to be a bloodthirsty monster. Through their dealings with Boo, the children learn some of the same lessons that Atticus is trying to teach.
Some have called TKM “immoral.” I think it is just the opposite. Yes, the book talks about rape and racism, but these things are not the main focus of the story; the story itself is about overcoming evil, about trying to do the right thing even when you are all alone. Like any story, TKM has its villains, but its heroes adhere to “a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic . . . .” The best example of this is the protagonist, Atticus Finch. A description I once heard of Tom from Uncle Tom’s Cabin suits Atticus perfectly: “He’s the kind of person you should strive to be, but who you can’t be without Jesus.” For instance, when Atticus is chosen to defend Tom, he promises to defend him just as fully as he would any other man. For Atticus, this is not just about winning an argument or proving himself right: it is “something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience” (pg. 120). He considers it his duty not only to Tom, but to his children, his community, and, most importantly, to God to make sure that Tom is defended to the utmost (pg. 120).
Another thing that I love about the Finch family is that they provide an excellent example of why thinking for oneself is so important. The Finches are rather an oddity in their hometown of Maycomb, as their neighbors and relatives remind them nearly every day: Scout dresses and plays like a boy, Atticus never went to school, but he teaches his children at home, and on top of that, he treats black people decently. But like all great characters, in books and in real life, the Finches could not care less about what the rest of the world thinks. Of course, Scout, being so young, is tempted to believe what others say about her father, that he is wrong for wanting to defend a black man. But, in what has now become one of my favorite book lines, Atticus tells her, “[b]efore I can live with others folks, I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” (pg. 120). By the end of the book, Scout learns that the truth and doing what’s right are the only things that matter, not appearances and not what other people think.
To me, the best stories are the ones in which really terrible things happen, but the good outweighs the bad. TKM is one of those books. Make no mistake: the book has a few gritty scenes as well as a sad ending, but the main characters are still able to rise above their circumstances. The story’s villains are filled with hate, but its heroes try to lead lives of love. TKM decries the worst in man while also celebrating the best in him; I only wish that Lee had made it a little more obvious that the best in man doesn’t really come from man at all.
So much for the content of the book. The writing is fantastic as well. I was impressed with how seamlessly Lee ties several themes into her plot. She also meets another of my criteria for a good book: in the same story, there are parts that are extremely sad and parts that are extremely sweet (see Chapter 25, paragraph 21); some parts remind you of an Alfred Hitchcock movie and others are laugh-out-loud funny. An author who can take you to both ends of the emotional spectrum and handle both equally well is well-worth the time of reading.
Another thing that makes Lee a great author is her ability to manipulate the reader’s perspective on her characters in order to make her point. For example, one thing that the reader is expected to take away from To Kill a Mockingbird is this line: “You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. . . . Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (pg. 33). With her portrayals of some of the characters, Lee almost forces her readers to do just that, making her point all the better. I don’t want to ruin the book, so just read about Jem’s adventures with Mrs. Dubose in Chapter 11 and you will know what I am talking about.
When I first began to read TKM, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard that it was one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, but to be perfectly honest, I’ve never had much of an interest in twentieth century authors. John Steinbeck? Sounded too depressing. James Joyce? Sounded too confusing. It seemed most of the great authors of the twentieth century were either boring, depressing, or both. I didn’t think I would like TKM, but was I ever wrong! I love this book. That’s all. I just love it.It will break your heart, thrill your soul, and make you rue the day Harper Lee put down her pen. I highly recommend it anyone and everyone.
Image: Wikimedia Commons