When I was younger I looked at classic literature the way I looked at eating my vegetables, good for me but not exactly fun. I much preferred to read my Judy Blume books and other assorted YA novels, trashy reads like VC Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic or copies of Rolling Stone, Spin and Star Hits.
Then for some reason I decided to read Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird proved to me that classics weren’t just something I had to read; classics were something I wanted to read. (And yes, I now eat my vegetables, thank you very much).
Published over 50 years ago, To Kill a Mockingbird portrays a very specific moment in time, the deep South in the era of Jim Crow and years before the Civil Rights Movement. It is also the story of a family living in a small town in Alabama, and told through the point of view of one singular little girl, Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout.
Scout Finch lives with her brother, Jem, and their widowed father Atticus Finch, a local attorney. The Finch’s black maid, Calpurnia, is a stern yet loving presence in the Finch’s lives.
Scout navigates her small world of school, family life, her budding friendship with a boy named Dill and admonishments from her concerned elders about her unladylike ways. However, she’s also becoming aware of a bigger world around her. She and her brother are both intrigued and frightened by the town recluse Boo Radley. Is he truly as horrible as the townspeople claim? And Scout and Jem are also learning that life isn’t always fair and just.
Their father has just been assigned an insurmountable task-defending a local black man named Tom Robinson against a false rape charge. This was time when a black man could be lynched for even looking at a white woman. In the court of public opinion, Tom is guilty and should probably fry.
Tom’s accuser is Mayella Ewell. Mayella, and her violent and abusive father, Bob, are considered the town trash. Just like many of the black families in town, the Ewells are looked down upon, yet the false word of one white woman takes precedence over a black man’s innocence.
Mayella may be a liar, but she is also a victim of both her viciously cruel father and a time when potential rape victims were often treated as criminals themselves . Atticus treats her with decency while questioning her about the crime, yet is stalwart in getting out the truth and defending his client, a devoted family man. Atticus digs for the truth but is also compassionate and fair. And though Atticus knows getting a “not guilty” verdict will be incredibly difficult, he remains stalwart that this is a case worth fighting-for Tom Robinson and his family and for his own integrity as an attorney and as a father.
Scout and her brother are allowed to attend the trial, and are thoroughly drawn into the proceedings (as is the reader). Just as Scout and Jem learn that Atticus is so much more than just their father, and justice and fairness are worth fighting for. They also learn the importance of empathy, truly putting yourself in another person’s shoes. And it isn’t long before they learn that things aren’t always what they seem when they have a chance meeting with Boo Radley. These are important lessons we must all learn, and To Kill a Mockingbird conveys this with both simplicity and elegance.
What struck me while reading To Kill a Mockingbird once again is how both timeless and timely the story is. We are still dealing with many of the same issues, especially when it comes to race, in 2013 (no racism hasn’t ended because we have a black President).
What is also amazing about To Kill Mockingbird is Ms. Lee’s commendable talent as a writer. She writes with clarity, a certain richness and a lack of pretense. Not one passage rings false, and every character is fully drawn, not just the main characters. I felt as if I actually knew these people. It’s no wonder Hollywood made To Kill a Mockingbird into a notable film just years after the book’s initial release.
To Kill a Mockingbird also inspired several non-fiction books about the book and Harper Lee and the documentary by Mary McDonagh Murphy, Hey, Boo:Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’
The famously reclusive Harper Lee only wrote one book, but what a book it is. To Kill a Mockingbird is a book to be read often and completely cherished.