To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

Cover image

Publisher: Warner
Copyright: 1960
Printing: December 1982
ISBN: 0-446-31078-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 281

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Scout and her older brother are children growing up in the backyards and fields of small-town Alabama in the 1930s. When the book opens, Scout is about to go to school for the first time. Their father, Atticus Finch, is a well-respected lawyer and Congressional repesentative for the region. Their mother died when Scout was two, and Atticus has raised them with the help of a black nurse (who also serves as cook). Atticus is about to take on, at the request of the court, a case of a black man accused of raping a white woman, a case that will stress the town and the Finch family and uncover both the prejudice and the dignity of the people of Maycomb.

If you're from the United States (and perhaps even if you're not), you've probably already read this book. Despite being Harper Lee's first novel, it's widely considered among the greatest and is frequently assigned in school. I missed many of the classics in high school including this one and have been going back to see what I missed, so it's my first exposure to the book. It's pervasive enough, though, that I had picked up a mental connection between the name Atticus and great lawyers without knowing where that was from.

My expectation going in was that this would be a coming of age story of sorts about the culture of the South. It is that to a degree. The first section of the book settles into that pattern, telling of childish exploits, summers of freedom, town legends, loved and hated relatives, and confrontations with the class structure of Maycomb in school. Even this section, however, is one of those stories where a brief outline of the plot makes the book seem less appealing than it is. Lee has both a fine eye for characterization and pacing and a deft touch with dialect. Coming of age stories, particularly of childish pranks and dares, usually leave me cold, but the characters are so vivid and deep and the relationship between Scout and her father so touching that I didn't mind the plot. The story is written somewhat in the dialect of the region, but Lee uses this just enough to give the account flavor and not so much that I had difficulty following it. I had to guess at terms in a few places, but the reading experience is smooth.

This first section is not the heart of the book; it's only background and character and cultural introduction. Soon, Atticus is drawn into the trial, the children start taking insults because their father is defending a black man, and the tension rises markedly. The lines of class and race that have been in the story from the beginning become more pronounced, and Atticus's quiet insistence on the basic worth of human beings becomes more relevant and poignant. The climax, about two-thirds through the book, of the trial is one of the most engrossing and emotionally affecting pieces of literature I've ever read.

This is not a triumphant book, nor is it an angry one. It's a story about seeing people as people and trying to understand them, about taking small changes where they can be had, about being decent and behaving honorably. It deals with difficult attitudes that don't change easily or overnight. Deeper than that, it's a book about accepting the good in people and trying to help them deal with the evil. Lee presents a memorable picture of a father trying both to raise idealistic children and children who can live in the world that is, who is trying to do the right thing even when the right outcome isn't possible. Despite all the reason for pessimism, it's a book that helps one appreciate people and provides reason for hope.

The end of the book ties back to one of the subplots of the beginning and follows the return of the town to something approaching normalcy. It's a bit of a letdown after the emotional drama of the trial; there is continuing dramatic tension, but it's more personal, closer to home, and doesn't feel as significant. Stay with it, though, as Lee is going somewhere with the conclusion. In the last few pages, she ties together the desire for action, the outsider perspective, the flaws and fallout of any human action, and the inherent dignity of humanity in scenes that, if quieter and less grand than the courtroom, have nearly as much depth.

Reading a lot of science fiction has left me sensitive to techniques of alienation in literature. Lee uses them effectively here, at least for a reader separated by culture and time from her setting. Scout is deep within the culture of the book and simply takes it for granted, but she's a child, and Lee uses explanations from adults as explanations to the reader. To Kill a Mockingbird dares the reader to react, both to Scout and with her, as the politics of the town are slowly revealed. If anything, I think the book is more effective fifty years later when no one speaks of blacks even the way that Atticus does (but with racism still present, just unspoken). The modern reader has an ingrained and immediate dislike of the racists that Lee plays off of and against, both using it to increase our sympathy for Atticus and to make the reader go back and reconsider impressions of people who seemed vile on first glance. This book left me with a strong sense of the slow moral arc of the universe described by Martin Luther King, Jr. — an appreciation for small gains, the slow pace at which people are able to change, and the dignity of trying.

Classics have a bad reputation partly they're so often assigned reading (not the best circumstance under which to meet a book), and stories of the small-town South never sounded that appealing to me. If you've been avoiding this book out of fear that it was literary without being entertaining, don't. The plot may not sound that appealing, but the characterization is exceptional and the dramatic payoff is one of the best I've read. Regardless of any deeper moral point, this is simply good storytelling and deserves to be as famous as it is.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-10-16

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