“They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us” says Maudie Atkinson, one of the ladies of Maycombe referring to Mockingbirds. The symbol of the Mockingbird is repeated through out the book and is significant within the stories as a bench mark for people’s actions. Harper Lee explained in later years that the book is about the moral standards of the period (1930’s Depression), and that it carries the message of tolerance and respect across several themes.
Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird soared to dizzy heights almost immediately and has become, it is said, the most popular book after the Bible. However, it has been challenged on occasions, some quite recently as people sometimes feel the language is out dated and often derogatory, for example the word “nigger”, which is used frequently throughout the book. However, in English speaking countries the book is often on the school curriculum and is as popular as ever, as it embraces several themes which never go out of date. It is interesting to note that the similarities between the people and events in the book and Lee’s own life are more than coincidence. It is partly auto-biographical.e
Set in Maycombe, a fictional town in Alabama, the story is told by Jean Louise Finch (known as Scout) who is the six year old daughter of the local attorney at law, Atticus Finch. She and her brother Jem, who is four years older, live with their widowed father. Later in the book, their aunt comes to live with them in an effort to train tomboy Scout to become more ladylike. The first part of the book sets the scene and concentrates on the childrens’ lives. Scout starts school and another boy, Dill, spends the summer in Maycomb and becomes firm friends with Scout and Jem. Scout tells us about all the residents of the town, giving wonderful descriptions of their personalities, a mixture of her family’s opinions and her own understanding, (or misunderstanding) of them. This combination of child innocence and adult experience leads to clashes at times, but it serves to show how Scout thinks about things, and resolves them in her own way. As a consequence we follow her, and Jem as they mature and embrace the ideologies of their father. They frequently misjudge people and then are forced to reaccess their opinions. During this time, all three develop a fascination for a neighbour who is known as a recluse. They try to coax him to come out of his house, and dare each other to knock on his door until Atticus puts a stop to it. Meanwhile, the man in question, Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley is suspected of leaving them little gifts in the trunk of a tree outside his home.
In the second half of the book, things begin to get more active. Atticus is asked to represent a local black man who is accused of raping a white girl. The repercussions of this affect Scout and Jem who are suddenly catapulted out of their comfortable existence and shown a side of the folk in the town that they had not realised existed before. They are uncomfortable with the events that take place and each becomes more and more stressed in their efforts to account for peoples’ behaviour.When the man accused of rape, Tom Robinson, is found guilty Jem is very upset and the children are incredulous. The father of the girl who alleged rape, Bob Ewell said he would get his own back on those who had supported Tom. Since he was drunk most of the time, few believed him, until he tried to get into the Judges house. He also intimidated the widow of the innocent man, who was now dead as he had tried to escape from the prison and been shot.He spat in Atticus’ face too, but none of these actions indicated his last deed, which was trying to kill Jem and Scout as they walked home from the school pageant one night. Rather neatly, they were rescued by the elusive Boo Radley and Mr Ewell was found stabbed to death.
I found the book easy to read, although I sometimes found Scout’s trail of thought somewhat erratic at times, but the first part of the book was so slow and didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. I became a little bored and only continued as I knew the book was so well regarded. Even though the second part moves more quickly with the trial, I still thought it a bit slow, the only real action happening near the end.However, the book has several themes which interweave, some more easily appreciated after reading has finished. There is the morality theme, the class theme, the race theme, and the bildungsroman…that is, following the young protagonist and her brother from childhood to a sort of maturity, (albeit over only three years), but they do grow in emotional and psychological ways and this occurs as a theme throughout. Each of the themes is well illustrated with examples during the story, but although I was aware of some of them as I read, it was when I had finished the book that I really appreciated how cleverly interlocked they were.
The characters were written with great insight. Scout is a wonderful little girl, asking all the questions of a bright and curious child, and very capable of standing up for herself. Jem’s behaviour is just as thoughtful, but more measured and he is a wonderful protector of his sister. Their father is the moral role model of the story, quietly intelligent, very tolerant, reasoning with his children and teaching them that life is not just black and white. Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’ sister, is very class orientated, and Scout feels that her aunt dislikes her, but is again made to realise that you should not make assumptions. All the characters come across as very real and fresh, even the ladies of the town who are portrayed as biggoted and shallow, yet warm and human too. Lee never gives the impression that she is judging or criticising.
My final impression was that it is a really good book and deserves the accolades. It is one of those books that I think may require reading at least twice, so that you can appreciate all the bits of the jigsaw and make connections. I did enjoy my read but still have a faint feeling of disappointment. I think I am still concerned that the first part of the book was so slow. Perhaps it will take a few days to take full account of everything.
Meanwhile, Harper Lee met President Bush on November the 5th 2007 when he awarded her with the presidential medal of freedom for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
Photgraphs: Top: ‘Mocking me’ by Scott Robinson
Bottom: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Nenad Stevanovic
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