Author: Harper Lee
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
I first read To Kill a Mockingbird sometime in my middle school years, as I am assuming most people have. Unfortunately, unlike most people, I hope, I couldn’t remember the finer points of the story. I remembered the general story and a couple of character names, and I remembered the general topic, but that was about it. Recently, I found a copy of this book at a flea market and decided to buy it, after which it sat on my shelf for several months (how’s that for getting to new books rather quickly, right? right?). Then I saw a few people on a book group I’m a part of saying they read it recently, and I thought, “You know, I should read this again.” So I did.
To be fair, I listened to most of the book. My days of sitting for hours and reading are now hit or miss, so I’ve taken to listening to more books (though, typically, I only listen to nonfiction). Now to those that haven’t read the book in a while, there are a handful of words most of us don’t hear in daily conversation that pop up frequently in this book. I’d forgotten about that, so parts of this book were a little disconcerting for me to hear. But I suppose that is ok. And it certainly didn’t keep me from finishing the story.
Overall, this is a fantastic story. I forgot how long it took to get to the climax, but the journey there is fun and interesting. I came to love certain characters, and I got a clear picture of what life was like for so many walks of life during this period. The characters are believable and likable (well, the main ones, anyway. There are certainly some unsavory characters in this book that make your skin crawl). Furthermore, I learned and was reminded of much in this book. I always favor a book I can learn something from, either practically or philosophically.
I also enjoyed Harper Lee’s writing style. I wasn’t sure how much I’d like it, as I don’t typically favor many books written after about 1930, but her’s I did. I also loved how she wove the plot, the theme, and the “moral,” if you will, together seamlessly throughout the story. To me, she didn’t shove it in your face, her message to the reader. Yes, it’s obvious. But some writers make every other line some message to the point that it becomes so annoying, you don’t even care to finish the book. But Lee doesn’t do that. She convinces through telling an entertaining narrative, and that I appreciate.
Along those same lines, when she goes to make a point through her characters, she does so in a witty way. This blends in with my comments about a couple of characters. This shouldn’t be a surprise, but my two favorite characters were Calpurnia and Atticus. We don’t hear a lot from Atticus at first, though he really shines in the second half of the book.
But Cal is the mother figure and perhaps even something of a second moral center (after the children’s father) for Scout and Jem, the children. She is present throughout the book. Cal raises these children both as the world is and as it could be. This is seen most strongly when she brings Scout and Jem to her church. While not everyone there is happy with their presence, and loudly make their own prejudices known, they are welcomed by the pastor and loved by Cal, and therefore, loved by all. This is just how their father, Atticus, wishes them to be in the world. Scout says near the end, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Cal also has a number of quotes throughout the book that are well worth highlighting and remembering.
For Atticus, he shines most during the trial. He is not just a good lawyer, but a good person. He is a true man who tries to do what is right. He is a provider, protector, and defender. He knows this case is one he’d rather not take because it will be difficult, and the people are against him. But he was chosen because he was the best one to do it. He was the best because he would do right to this man to the best of his ability. This is the type of person Atticus is. He treats everyone with the dignity they deserve because they are human, not because of what they can do for him. He stands up for what is right because it is right, not because it is popular. Like Cal, Atticus has numerous quotes that stand out among the rest of Lee’s intense and beautiful prose, but his closing remarks at the trial are perhaps the best. It’s something I will read again.
“…you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view – …- until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”Atticus
“…they got their church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t is, Miss Cal?”
“It’s the same God, ain’t it?”Lula and Cal
“It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It’s not ladylike- in the second place, folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ‘em. You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.”Cal
“Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”Atticus
“Atticus, he was real nice…”
“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”Scout and Atticus
I mentioned before that I had forgotten how long Lee took to get to the climax. I was actually a little annoyed for a while. I was about halfway through the book and wondered, “When are we going to get to the trial? I thought it was the main part of the book?” And it was, in a way, or at least the message was the point, and that is made evident at the climactic trial. But after getting to the end of the book, I realized how perfect it was that Lee wrote the story this way. By first letting the reader into the mind of Scout, the reader gets to see this world in this place at this time from this perspective before getting to the rough part. You get to see the neighbors as real people, not just black and white constructs that can only be seen as either evil or good. This is not to discount the good or bad that anyone does but rather to show how it is still relevant to our lives today. People are complex, and we shouldn’t try to make them less so.
While the story informs the reader at the beginning that the events of To Kill a Mockingbird occur after the Great Depression, I didn’t really consider what that time period meant in light of contemporary events. It is easy to get wrapped up in a story, even in the current story of our lives, and forget the world context. Towards the end of the book, the reader is reminded that this is during Hitler’s rise to power. Even before the characters got through their discussion, I realized the significance of that juxtaposition.
Here are these people acting all high and mighty because they hate Hitler and his prejudice and all he stands for, and yet they can’t even stand up for their own neighbor and the prejudice and misjudgment shown towards him. In the first part of the book, you get to know these people as generally decent people (each with their own typical flaws and good tributes). Even so, we see at the end that a handful of them still held on to that Darwinian judgment that some races hadn’t won out in the “favoured races” category in the “struggle for life.” Scout, who sees the world as it should be and not as it is and views people often the same way, can hardly understand how someone can hold such conflicting worldviews simultaneously. I am glad that Lee included that historical fact in this book and Scout’s observations of it. I think this is a good reminder to us all.
There is little wonder why this book is among the greats in literature. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the classics that everyone should read. There is a reason we have classic literature. It is literature that is, in each book’s own way, timeless and timely. We can always learn more from them, either practically or philosophically. Often, as is the case here, we learn more about how other people think and act, and how we can better serve those around us. We learn what it is to be human, both by our shortcomings and our successes. We also learn how to relate to others and understand them in light of the current context and historical hindsight. This is a book that should be read when you are young and when you are old. I look forward to having my own children read it. And if you haven’t read it in a while, I hope you’ll pick up what is rightly called one of the greatest works of American literature and read (or listen!) to it again. The time will be well spent.
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig