If you know which book the above quote is from, I applaud you and give you permission to look about you smugly, even if you’re alone. Done? Okay, let us begin…
It really was only a matter of time until I began using this blog to babble away about the books I like and I’m starting with what is my favourite book: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. More than 30 million copies of Lee’s only novel have been sold worldwide, so I’m well aware that this isn’t the most original choice, but if there’s someone out there who still hasn’t read it, maybe this will impel them to pick up a copy.
For those out there who are not familiar with the plot of the book here it is: a lawyer named Atticus Finch attempts to defend a black man charged with raping a white girl. So what makes Mockingbird different from any other book written about racial discrimination? It is Lee’s layering of Atticus’ eloquent intelligence with the naivety of Scout and Jem; it makes the message behind the book sing out at the reader.
‘Atticus, you must be wrong…’
Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong’
We’re fully aware of what Atticus is trying to do, the stained-glass walls he is attempting to chip away at, but just like Atticus we know that change will not come quickly enough. I would argue he is one of the greatest heroes ever created. (And it’s good to know that someone else agrees with me, even if it is a film institute, rather than a literary one.) Unlike most inherently good characters in fiction, we don’t need Atticus to have a significant flaw to make him seem more ‘human’. He represents enlightened and honest thinking and to mar that would be akin to proclaiming that positive forces do not exist in the world.
As Atticus explains to Scout when she asks why he has to defend Tom Robinson:
‘If I didn’t I couldn’t hold my head up in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again’
When a father can, and will, admit this to his young daughter, you want him to prevail.
Another facet of Mockingbird which makes it a joy to read is that none of the characters really irritate me. Undoubtedly there are those whom I find frustrating and ignorant, but if you don’t feel that way about the prejudicial and hypocritical views of the Deep South in the 1930s, then frankly, the whole point of the book is going to sail straight over your head. Even the narrator, Atticus’ daughter, six-year-old Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch, doesn’t make my inside scrunch up with frustration as most literary kids do.
‘I never deliberately learned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers… Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read.’
You might be put off by the thought of a child narrator but positioning the story through Scout’s eyes only highlights the absurdity of the time in which she’s living. One prime example of how racial prejudice warped societal reasoning is Mr Dolphus Raymond. A white man living with a black woman and their children, he pretends to be an alcoholic because other people ‘could never, never understand that I live like I do because that’s the way I want to live’. When Scout asks why he is sharing this secret with her and Dill, he simply replies: ‘because you’re children and you can understand it’.
However, what I most like about Mockingbird is the unassuming air it appears to have. You’re told it’s a tale written by a 46-year-old woman, set in a small town of 1930s America, narrated by a 6-year-old girl. On the cover of the edition sitting next to me is a simple black image of a young child swinging on a tyre. Without reading the description on the back cover, I think there’s little indication Lee’s novel shines a light on prejudice, class, poverty, gender roles, race, religion, education, family and the perceptions we harbour about others.
I’m probably looking for a phrase about books, their covers and not judging them but nothing is coming to mind right now…
In short, Lee’s book is heartfelt and funny, with sharply outlined and uncomfortably believable characters. She holds up a mirror to a world we hope we’ve left far behind, but in reality we’re aware that vestiges of it still remain in our society. Lee envelops us in her small town; we can map the geography in our minds, feel the stuffy air in the court room and, if you’re a girl with an older brother, share Scout’s desire to disparage anything feminine.
Every time I read To Kill A Mockingbird, I am reminded of just why Lee’s only novel has become such a well-loved and renowned text… whilst futilely wishing for a different verdict.
‘This case is as simple as black and white.’
If you’re wondering whether the film is worth watching, I thoroughly recommend it. I’m normally disappointed/irritated by at least one aspect of cinematic adaptations of books I really enjoy but the Universal film version seems to have been made in a time when film producers didn’t feel the need to recast the dowdy female character as a man-eater and insert fight scenes for no logical reason. And Peck is perfect as Atticus.