Probably ten million folks have written opinions on Harper Lee’s classic during the last fifty years, but I’m going to add my ten cents to the pot anyway. Because To Kill a Mockingbird is worth every coin we toss in.
This is the story of a black man standing trial in Alabama for a crime he didn’t commit. An honest, hard-working black man accused by the lowest of white men. But it’s much more than a local legal proceeding. Within these pages, the whole of American society stands trial.
Maycomb is a slow, tired, tight-knit southern community where everybody’s blood kin if you dig deep enough. It’s a town of contradictions. A town where good people are blinded by old prejudice and set habits. It’s where young Scout and her brother Jem are trying to work out just what makes people tick.
The narration is carried by an adult Scout, looking twenty-five years into the past to the recall the events of 1935. It’s rich with quirky, childish humor. With dry wit, exaggeration, understatement and innocent misstatements. For example, when Scout has a run-in with her new first grade teacher, she complains to Jem.
“Don’t worry, Scout,” Jem comforted me. “Our teacher says Miss Caroline’s introducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college. It’ll be in all the grades soon. You don’t have to learn much out of books that way–it’s like if you wanta learn about cows, you go and milk one, see?”
“Yeah, Jem, but I don’t wanta study cows. I-”
“Sure you do. You hafta know about cows, they’re a big part of life in Maycomb County.”
I contented myself with asking Jem if he’d lost his mind.
“I’m just trying to tell you the new way they’re teachin’ the first grade, stubborn. It’s the Dewey Decimal System.”
Scout and Jem are guided in their reflections on the human race by their father, Atticus Finch. He’s old, as fathers go, but he’s the best shot in Maycomb County. And he’s level-headed, fair, unassuming, and the attorney of Tom Robinson, the black man on trial for his life. Miss Maudie, a neighbor, tells the children after Tom’s trial:
“There are some men in this world born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them…We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus Finch to go for us.”
But the Christians of Maycomb County aren’t found guiltless. In one starkly hypocritical scene involving the Methodist missionary society, pious Mrs. Merriweather laments the barbaric societies of the world that don’t adhere to the teachings of scripture. Yet with her next condescending breath, she recommends the church leaders “encourage” the unhappy Negro community after the unfair and fatal result of Tom’s trial. “If we just let them know we forgive ‘em, that we’ve forgotten it, then this whole thing will blow over.” She goes on:
“The cooks and fieldhands are just dissatisfied, but they’re settling down now–they grumbled all the next day after the trial…Gertrude, I tell you there’s nothing more distracting than a sulky darky…You know what I said to my Sophy, Gerturde? I said, ‘Sophy,’ I said, ‘you simply are not being a Christian today. Jesus Christ never went around grumbling and complaining,’ and you know it did her good. She took her eyes off that floor and said, ‘Nome, Miz Merriweather, Jesus never went around complaining.’ I tell you, Gertrude, you never ought to let an opportunity go by to witness for the Lord.”
And in a discussion of current events at school, German persecution of Jews is condemned, and rightly so. But as the teacher enumerates the qualities of Jewish citizens, their contributions to society, their difficult past, their being forced to leave their homeland, the reader’s mind draws strong parallels to the blacks overlooked and persecuted in the same way in Maycomb County. This blindness and hypocrisy is underscored when a student remarks, “…that ain’t no cause to persecute ‘em. They’re white, ain’t they?”
Old Families take a good hit as well. That cultured set of gentlefolk deprived during the War Between the States of everything but their land, their pedigrees and their snobbery. Scout declares, “Atticus told me one time that most of this Old Family stuff is foolishness because everybody’s family’s just as old as everybody else’s. I said did that include the colored folks and the Englishmen and he said yes.”
Against all this drama, we also meet Arthur “Boo” Radley, reluctant hero and victim in his own right. A harmless mockingbird whose protection warrants the bending of a few rules.
Published right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, To Kill a Mockingbird has left its mark on American society. And for the better. It captures a segment of history with all its nostalgia and preserves a slice of small town southern culture. But it uses neither the forgetful nor the rosy lenses we often prefer to view such subjects through. Rather, it takes a good hard look at where we’ve been, and gives us all the encouragement we need to never go back there.
Appropriate for young adult readers. Difficult vocabulary, complex sentence structures, abstract ideas and some adult material. Probably too advanced for readers younger than high school.