There is perhaps no moment in life so bittersweet as the moment that childhood innocence is lost forever, the time when the scales fall from our eyes and we are forced to see the world for what it truly is. Since it was first published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird has been considered a classic of American fiction and has become a favorite of readers worldwide. In the novel, Harper Lee addresses the issues of racial injustice, class, and compassion as seen through the eyes of a young girl growing up in the Deep South.
Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is a six year old girl growing up during the Depression in the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama with her older brother Jem and her widower father Atticus, a lawyer. One summer, Scout and Jem befriend Dill, who is staying with his aunt for the summer. The three children become fascinated with the story of the mysterious "Boo" Radley, a recluse neighbor who hasn't been seen outside in years. The children set their sights on making Boo "come out" and spend the next two summers beginning an invisible friendship with him.
Meanwhile, Atticus has been appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl named Mayella Ewell. Racial tensions begin to run high and Scout and Jem are soon caught in a storm of hatred, violence and lies as their father tries to convince the townspeople to look beyond their prejudices and reward justice to the innocent.
My Review (Caution-Spoilers):
I have had people ask me why I bother to re-read books. I mean, you either like them or you don't and first impressions are impossible to overcome, right? If any book refutes that claim for me, it is To Kill a Mockingbird. Like every other child in the English speaking world, I was forced to read this story in one of my middle school grades. It's not that I hated it, I just didn't particularly care for it. I was left asking "And why is this a classic again?". So, I went into this re-read not expecting much. By the end of the first chapter, I was absolutely hooked.
The first thing that caught my attention was how much Maycomb was like my own Southern small-town. This quote in particular pointed out the similarities: "Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum." From picking scuppernongs in September to having to borrow snow from the neighbor's yard just to have enough for a snowman, Lee immerses us in the world of a child growing up in the small-town South. Scout is an amazing narrator. She immediately wraps you up in her point of view and never lets you go. We feel her happiness, her pain, and her anger and realize again just how hard growing up really is.
Lee address many issues in this novel, but the most prominent is, of course, the ideas of racism and class. The character of Atticus is the touchstone of justice, courage, and compassion throughout the story. His words constantly remind Scout (and us) to not judge people based on their skin color or where they come from, but simply as human beings. "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view--until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." There are really two great scenes that exemplify this message well. The first is when Atticus must fend off a gang of white men from harming Tom Robinson, and Scout unwittingly teaches the men that they are all humans with the same feelings, hopes, and desires. The second is the final scene where Scout realizes that Boo Radley is just as human as she is, and wishes she had thanked him for his friendship. The best thing about all of this is that Lee avoids making this a "Southern" issue. Issues of race and class are not isolated to the South. They are human problems that transcend time and place. Perhaps that is why so many people connect with this story no matter where they are from.
The other theme that Lee pursues is the idea of the death of innocence. Using the mockingbird as a symbol for innocent life, Lee gives us many examples of innocence killed by society, either physically (Tom Robinson's death) or emotionally (Scout and Jem's lost innocence). "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
I am so glad that I chose to re-visit this story. In fact, I now wonder if perhaps children are being forced to read it too early in life. It's hard to see and understand the shattering of innocence when you are still living in yours. The true beauty of this book is found in the reminiscing of sweet days gone by and the encouragement to conquer the problems we now face. So, if you are like me and the To Kill a Mockingbird of your middle school days is gone, I encourage you to pick it up again. It is a truly lovely story.
The 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird is just as popular if not more so than the novel that it is based on. Gregory Peck earned his only Oscar award for playing Atticus Finch. He is superb in the role, as are Mary Badham and Phillip Alford who starred as Scout and Jem respectively. If you haven't seen this classic movie, do so. The opening sequence alone is worth it, and Mary Badham's "Hey, Boo." is simply beautiful.
Trivia: Robert Duvall makes his screen debut as Arthur "Boo" Radley.