When a fellow bookclubber recently chose To Kill a Mockingbird for us to read, I will be honest, my heart sank. The reason? My memory of reading this book as part of my GCSEs as a teenager in the 80s. If there is one thing that can dampen the pleasure of a book, it’s studying it to death, picking over the themes and learning quotes only to regurgitate it all for your coursework or in an exam and then instantly forget it all as soon as the summer holidays begin. You can’t fully appreciate a book of this calibre by studying it like that at aged 15/16, no matter how bookish you are. You begin to detest it, it becomes inextricably linked to your studies, to the teachers you don’t like and the work you are forced to submit. Hence, my memories of To Kill a Mockingbird weren’t favourable, but I did vaguely remember the story and over the years have come to appreciate that it is well thought of and a favourite among several of my friends. Therefore, despite initial reservations I approached it with an open mind and heart, ready to enjoy it without analysing it!
It really is a pocket-sized piece of genius. Written in the late 50s and first published in 1960, it is one of those rare novels that provides a social commentary on the changes taking place at the time it is published. It was an instant hit for Harper Lee and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, selling millions of copies in a short period. She was noted as having described the success of To Kill a Mockingbird as almost as frightening as the prospect of receiving no attention from its publication. No further novels were forthcoming, only a few short stories. She has been notoriously private and gives no interviews, so the media can only speculate about the reason for her lack of output. She has though been protective of To Kill a Mockingbird, writing lively letters defending her work when various school boards in the USA attempted to ban the book as “immoral literature”. She has also steadfastly refused to allow an introduction to be added to later editions, claiming its themes and messages are self-explanatory. What she would have thought of a class-full of 15/16 year olds analysing her book to the point of paralysis I cannot imagine!
The story follows 9 year old Jean-Louise Finch, known as Scout, her older brother Jem and their widowed father Atticus over a 3 year period during the Great Depression. They live in Maycomb, Alabama where everyone is either related to each other or knows you and your business. The book is narrated by Scout as she re-tells a series of episodes that make an impression on her and Jem as they grow up in this small town and try to make sense of things that happen to them, their neighbours and other townsfolk. I don’t want to give away the story by describing the plot in detail, but its difficult not to write a bit about it!
Scout and Jem’s adventures include trying to coax their reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley, from his spooky house, witnessing a fire destroying another neighbour’s home, spending time with a crotchety old woman who makes their life a misery and visiting church with their black maid, Calpurnia. All of these episodes build up to the main story line. Atticus is the lawyer appointed to defend a local black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. There is a lot of tension in the build up to the trial as the local towns people discuss the case and harass Atticus for defending Tom Robinson. The trial itself is played out in detail, with Scout and Jem watching the proceedings from the “colourds” balcony. Atticus proves the woman is lying and makes her father look a fool in front of the assembled crowd. The jury still convicts Tom Robinson however, a reflection of the racist nature of the deep south at that time.
Harper Lee was criticised for using a child narrator. It was thought to be inauthentic and unbelievable. I really quite liked Scout’s prose. It came across as innocent and unprejudiced, she reported it as she saw it, with the eye of a child unable to complicate things. Parts of it also brought back memories of long summer holidays making up games with siblings and friends, only returning home for fuel.
Throughout the book, Atticus gives Scout and Jem pieces of advice to help them grow up into tolerant young people. There were times while reading when I hoped that I could be as compassionate, as insightful, as patient, as thoughtful and as sensible in my parenting. There are so many themes tackled in the book; racial tensions and tolerance, understanding differences in backgrounds and having empathy for others and courage in the face of adversity. This is probably why is has become such a favourite among readers and students alike.
I am so pleased to have read this book again for enjoyment rather than academia.