To Kill a Mockingbird is a book that I first read in early high school. I remember it being a great book and a few specific details have stayed with me–Tom Robinson attempting to escape prison and Scout in a ham costume, to name a few. But I hadn’t read it since. I was super excited when my book group decided to read it in preparation of Harper Lee’s new novel that was just released this month. (I have to admit I haven’t bought Go Set a Watchman yet. I just can’t decide if it will be as good as TKAM. But I’m excited to read others’ reviews of it.)
It is beautiful.
Beautiful is really the best word for this book. The writing style struck me much stronger than I remember it influencing me in high school. The style paints a unique picture of a small southern town and the innocence of childhood in the 1930s. The writing is beautiful. Lee truly has a gift for storytelling and characters. Readers are transported into the world she creates.
The setting is simple–Maycomb, Alabama. Maycomb is a small, sleepy town with a historical reputation. Its people have lived here for generations and are rather seeped in their ways. Most of the story occurs at the Finch home and in the surrounding neighborhood. You come to know the neighbors and friends that build this community and shape the experience of the narrator, Jean Louise Finch (commonly called Scout) and her family.
Scout is a precocious narrator. Her innocent telling of the event surrounding her white father’s defense of a black man, Tom Robinson, offers a surprisingly poignant and intricate view of the tense relations between blacks and whites in the South. She sees people as people and lacks the racist beliefs often stereo-typically given to all white Southerners. He childhood innocence begins with a fascination with a local hermit of sorts–Boo Radley–a man who hasn’t been seen outside his home for years. Scout, her brother Jem, and childhood fiance Dill are nearly obsessed with making Boo “come out.” They fantasize about the type of person Boo is and how it would be to encounter him outside. It is not until much later that Scout is able to see the world from Boo’s perspective (after several conversations with her father, Atticus) and appreciate the relationship they have built–almost without her knowing it.
Scot’s innocence is tested more strongly during the trial sequence later in the novel. She, Dill, and Jem watch as Atticus defends the wrongly accused Tom Robinson of raping and beating Mayella Ewell, daughter of a local widowed drunk who lives next to the dump. Atticus is truly magnificent as he questions witnesses and builds a case for Tom’s innocence. Jem is convinced he will win. But the jury of all white males convict Tom of the crime–a decision made more because of the color of Tom’s skin than the credibility of the Ewells or their testimonies. This court decision shakes the children’s world and what they thought they knew about people. Atticus wisely tells them that the several hours the jury took to deliberate is a small step towards equality. He even references the potential racial problems that will come with greater force before equality is reached.
But the most intriguing scene for me comes after the news of Tom Robinson’s attempted escape from prison and his death. It is here that Scout truly learns more about the problems with race and the difficulty of holding onto hope during impossible experiences. After learning the news, she and her aunt return to a gathering of ladies they are hosting to discuss missionary efforts abroad. Scout observes that “if her aunt could be a lady, so could she.” What makes this statement so intriguing is not only the way it shows Scout’s maturity through her experiences, but it also redeems aunt Alexandra–a character that seems high strung and disagreeable through most of the novel.
The masterful way that Harper Lee creates characters makes this novel so moving. And the relationships between those characters craft compelling arguments about much more than just people.
When Tom Robinson is accused, the town is divided about Atticus Finch defending him. Most white folks disagree with his decision to defend Tom; some even threaten physical harm to both Atticus and Tom. Despite these obstacles, Atticus is firm in his resolution to defend an innocent man. And through that resolution, he teaches his children (and the reader) the importance of honor, integrity, and truth in the face of difficult opposition.
I find the relationship between the Ewell family and the rest of Maycomb more interesting than the relationships between the blacks and white generally. We first meet the Ewell family with Scout on her first day of school. Burris Ewell comes to class for just one day and offends their teacher with his filthy appearance and rude manners. Its easy to see where his coarse appearance and nature comes from when we meet Mr. Ewell and Mayella at the trial. Mr. Ewell is potentially one of the least sympathetic characters in literature. His offensive and rough manner earns him little credibility and even less respect. It seems Mr. Ewell expected big changes in his reputation following the conviction of Tom Robinson, but he just earns more dislike from others. His obsession with revenge against Atticus is scary but also compelling. He seems to want the trial to change his position in society–to make him respected in some way. But it doesn’t. Atticus makes Ewell look like a fool and Ewell attempts to get back at him by killing Scout and Jem on Halloween night.
Most compelling about Mr. Ewell is the way the town chooses to forget him. Sheriff Tate adamantly declares that Ewell fell on his own knife in his attempt to kill Scout and Jem. He tells Atticus to let the whole situation resolve itself–“let the dead bury the dead.” I think this shows the complexity of the relationships between people. Its not as easy as black vs. white. There are different kinds of people of any race and different people worth respecting or forgetting.
Ultimately, this is a story about growing up and about the changing relationships between siblings, between parents and children, and between friends. It’s about changing your perspective and seeing others in a new light. It’s about changing a reclusive mystery into a heroic friend.