Jul 4, 2016

Reading the Classics: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Cover of the book showing title in white letters against a black background in a banner above a painting of a portion of a tree against a red background
Image from wikipedia.org

Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, and it became a huge success, winning her the Pulitzer Prize. A classic of American literature, this has been on my reading list for a long time. Somehow I had the idea that the book would be a tough read and really dark, and it is, in a way, but I was surprised by how engaging it was. The writing is immensely readable and immersive, and Scout, the first person narrator, immediately sympathetic. And Atticus Finch is my new hero.

The book handles the heavy subject of a false rape accusation and racism with a firm hand, mostly leaving judgment to the characters while the author doesn’t lecture. The only part where I felt she was laying it on a bit too thick was the scene in the classroom where the teacher talks about how the Nazis had no reason whatsoever to hate the Jews in a horrified tone and some time before we saw her acting racist at the trial.

The first person narration works well, mostly, but at times Scout seems a bit older than her years. The parts where Scout wasn’t actually present and the narration slips into a flashback from another character also feel a bit jolting, but these are minor quibbles.

Mockingbird feels like an important book in how it handles social issues, racism, class differences, and gender roles, but its heart is in the warmth of Scout’s relationship with her brother and her father. Even the minor characters come to life, and a lot of them aren’t what they appear to be, Boo Radley in particular. The vivid descriptions of life in the South during the Great Depression are beautifully done; you can almost taste the crackling bread and smell the camellias Jem ripped up. 

A major theme is the loss of innocence and the realisation that there is no justice in the world. Jem takes this particularly hard, and feels like he loses faith in the goodness of people. Is it futile to fight a battle you can't win, even if it's the right thing to do? Maybe that's what makes it important?  Sometimes it's scary and takes a lot of courage. Not all of us are as brave as Atticus. 

Over the course of the story, Scout learns to put herself in another person's shoes, an important lesson in compassion. It's an uncomfortable thing to do, because sometimes it reveals things about you or your loved ones that you don't like or are ashamed of. That's one reason why reading is so important; it lets you climb inside someone else's skull and see what his or her life is like, and that changes you.  I get why this is a book that kids have to read at school.

A great book, one I'll probably re-read many times. 

Classics read: 28/100

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