I admit I went into “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee with preconceived ideas. Everyone knows the classic book is about the Finch family and centers on lawyer Atticus Finch, father of Jem and Scout, defending a black man accused of a heinous crime in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s. I expected most of the book to be about the trial.
But the trial and the surrounding events only start about halfway through the book. Lee has a lot to say before then.
Scout is around five or six when the book starts because she is heading into first grade. Her brother Jem is four years older and they are good pals. Their mother died when Scout was 2 years old, and they’ve been raised by their father, Atticus, and housekeeper/cook Calpurnia, a black woman.
Atticus, admittedly, has taken a laid-back approach to child-rearing, but he’s not a negligent parent. He treats his children not so much as children, but young people with brains. Atticus answers questions directly, tailoring his replies to their ages. He allows them to do things most people think they shouldn’t, like go uptown themselves and for Scout to wear overalls in a time when most girls were expected to wear dresses and be impeccable little ladies. But in the important things, like respecting others and their choices, Atticus is implacable: he lays down the law when he catches the kids trying to draw the town recluse Boo Radley out of his house.
Lee gets in a lot of commentary about a myriad of topics not related to race: women’s and girls’ roles and expectations, family pride, religion, how ineffective schools can be at teaching, how young people see old people, treating neighbors with compassion, and how small towns work (especially in the South), just to name a few. Race is simply a part of that larger picture, including the juxtaposition of how blacks operate in the white world and in their own, as well as how white people viewed blacks. Atticus projects a 21st Century viewpoint where most everyone else seems pretty backwards.
Lee has her moments of understated humor, especially since she’s telling this story from the point of view of a young child, but she also gets the reader to think about serious topics, none more so than how race influences the way people think about just about everything, and colors what should be the facts of a case.
By the time the case comes up in reality, Lee has set the stage and the reader wonders how Tom Robinson can ever hope to get a fair hearing. To further muddy the waters, Lee portrays Robinson as “a quiet, respectable, humble Negro” – a reliable worker and kind man, while his accuser comes from a family that everyone in the county knows is white trash.
Lee asks the reader to question whether we should judge someone by the color of their skin or their character. Published in 1960, the book has language and attitudes that were common and acceptable then but are frowned upon now. Even so, “To Kill A Mockingbird” is definitely worth reading.
I think the way Lee chose to write the book enhances the message she was trying to get across about prejudice and rigid expectations for everyone, not just blacks. Prejudice takes many forms, and it always depends on one’s perspective. Sometimes it’s race, sometimes it’s socio-economic, sometimes it depends on your value system and who’s against what you stand for. (Hint: This takes place in the mid-1930s when Adolph Hitler was rising to power in Germany.)
I was shocked and annoyed when I read one female’s reaction to being addressed in a respectable manner. It’s common practice for a Southern woman of any age or marital status to be addressed as “Miss (First Name)” because it bridges the gap between complete formality and total informality. It wouldn’t be respectful to yell, “Hey, Anna Mae!” across the street, but you can yell “Hey, Miss Anna Mae!” and be fine. It’s a tradition that’s practiced to this day, as I learned when I lived in Texas for 16 years. But when children are raised as less than humans, they don’t recognize human civility when they see it, no matter what color they may be.
All in all, Lee writes with a subtle hand, but a sharply observant eye. Although “To Kill A Mockingbird” is 60 years old, it could have come hot off the printing press, especially in these times.
“To Kill A Mockingbird” was published to critical acclaim, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. It was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus. It’s also a play staged in Monroeville, Alabama, (Lee’s hometown). The book has been translated into more than 40 languages and has never been out of print.
For more about Harper Lee, what might have inspired her to write “To Kill A Mockingbird,” her friendship with author Truman Capote, as well as other things she did before her death in February of 2016, visit tokillamockingbird.com or look up Harper Lee online.