To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper-Collins, 1961)
EDISON, NJ -To Kill a Mockingbird by the enigmatic Harper Lee is celebrating its 55th year as an American classic and has sold over 40 million copies. Even so, why look at it now? The novel is taught in practically every high school in the United States as the anthem of tolerance, and deservedly so. However, on July 14th of 2015 the long hoped for sequel to Lee's novel will be published. Originally submitted to her publishers as a first novel, Go Set a Watchman, the book was never released. Instead, until 2014 it has been “lost” in a vault.
Go Set a Watchman is a matter of great debate at the moment. It will be either be the greatest literary triumph of the 21st century, or the most disappointing flop on record. However, a review of that book will have to wait until its release.
The most engaging of novels are those that are character driven, and To Kill a Mockingbird's characters are dynamic and throughly drawn. The moral center of the novel is lawyer, Atticus Finch, a widower with a son, Jeremy (Jem), and daughter, Jean Louise (Scout), who is the narrator of the story. Atticus (played in the 1962 film adaptation by Gregory Peck and cited as the “greatest hero of American film” by the American Film Institute) is drawn like a finely cut cameo.
Enigmatic, deep-thinking, and a man of conviction, he lives by this creed, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along between with all kinds of folks. 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.”
Paternal responsibilities are a challenge for Atticus,whose children call him by his first name. Scout loves to curl in her father's lap at night and have him read the newspaper or legal tomes to her. As a result when she starts the first grade, she is able to read and write, a fact that her teacher doesn't know how to handle. The teacher, who has been trained in all the latest methods, scolds Scout for her abilities and forbids her to engage in either reading or writing, making Scout want to drop out of school. As one reads of Scout's continual travails in a repressive school system, he/she cannot help but smile. Her outlook on the world is naively honest and refreshing.
The novel is a true “coming of age” story, following a two year period in which Scout, Jem, and their best friend, Dill (based on Harper Lee's childhood friend, Truman Capote) discover much about Atticus, their neighbors in Maycomb, Alabama, and the trials and tragedies that life always throws in our way.
Jem and Scout harbor a secret belief that their distant and awkward father is somewhat of a sissy. Unlike most men of Maycomb, he doesn't own a gun and eschews violence. However, one day old Tim Johnson, a neighbor's hound, is wobbling down the road, and Jem realizes that he is ill with rabies. After Jem's sounding the alarm to Calpurnia, the family's maid, Atticus appears with Sheriff Heck Tate. Much to the surprise of the children, Heck hands a shotgun to Atticus and states, “Mr. Finch, this is a one-shot job.” Despite his protests, Atticus takes the gun and kills the dog. In a state of shock at having seen his father do something Jem never dreamed Atticus capable of, he is further stunned to hear neighbor, Miss Maudie address Atticus as “One-Shot Finch.”
This incident begins the odyssey of the children learning the depth of their father's bravery as he embarks on defense of Tom Robinson, a local Negro, who has been accused of raping 19 year old Mayella Ewell. Despite Atticus' brilliant defense of the crippled Tom Robinson, and Jem's absolute belief that his father has succeeded in proving Tom innocent, it is still the deep South during the depression. “It ain't right,” Jem muttered as the word “guilty” resonated in the courtroom.
In a conversation following the verdict, Atticus tries to explain Mayella Ewell's father's lies on the stand and his spitting in Attiucus' face, at the trial's end. “Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell's shoes a minue. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with.”
Atticus then explains to Jem the way things are between whites and blacks in their time. And it is perhaps in this poignant passage that Lee is most prophetic and what keeps To Kill A Mockingbird so relevant in our time. Atticus tells his son, “As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but le me tell you something and don't you forget it ---whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.
“Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up and his face was vehement. 'There's nothing more sickening to me that a low-grade white man who'll take advantage of a Negro's ignorance. Don't fool yourselves---it's all adding up and one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it. I hope it's not in you children's time.'”
While race relations have improved to a large degree in our world, as recent historical events have shown, with the senseless killings of young black men by police, hiding behind the guise of enforcing “law and order,” America has a long, long way to go before the Tom Robinsons of our country can truly receive justice. While we ache to be a country full of men like Atticus Finch, we are not there yet, and this is why the novel still speaks to us so potently.
It would be remiss to not mention the children's fascination with their reclusive next door neighbor, Boo Radley, about whom rumors have run rampant for years. Jem, Scout, and Dill become obsessed with trying to make Boo come out. They weave stories about his sordid life, and perform them in play form in the yard, driving Atticus to distraction as he tries to explain how cruel they are being. He explains that hurting something so fragile is “like killing a mockingbird.”
In the final moments of the book, Scout and Jem get their wish, to make Boo come out of his house. Boo summons up the courage to come out of the gloom to save their lives from the real monster of the piece. And in Scout's tender acceptance of this extraordinary “mockingbird,” the reader's tears cannot be held back. The last pages of this masterpiece of American literature show how a carefully woven plot laces together to send several important messages to all of the people who ever traverse its pages.
If you haven't done it yet, revisit Harper Lee's masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird before July 14.