|Harper Lee in 1960|
Sometimes, a book doesn’t need to be epic in length to capture your imagination, or stay with you forever. It’s great to read a book of epic proportions, and sometimes a book can be so boring that it takes an epic effort to actually finish it. However, brevity in a narrative, if used well, is often a mark of a good author. To Kill a Mockingbird is one such example.
Set during the Great Depression in a small, fictional Alabama town of Maycomb, the proud seat of Maycomb County, we’re introduced to the story from the view of a little girl, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a precocious, highly intelligent and observant one at that, who tags along with her brother Jeremy, or Jem. Together, they’re cared for by their father Atticus, who is a sole parent and a hired housekeeper, Calpurnia, who is African-American.
The beginning of the story focuses mainly upon the adventures of Scout, Jem and their friend Dill, who visits during summers, most of which encompass visiting family, friends, neighbours and also thinking up of the most implausible reasons for why their neighbour from across the street, Arthur “Boo” Radley is never, ever seen in public. Despite warnings from Atticus, they often get into trouble, not only by trying to tease out Arthur Radley from his home, but also with other residents on their street.
The major crux of the story is about the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man who is accused of raping and injuring Mayella Ewell, who is the daughter of Bob Ewell, the town outcast and drunk. The Ewell family lives in squalor on the outskirts of Maycomb and only survives due to state welfare. Though Atticus, Robinson’s defence lawyer, is able to prove beyond a doubt that Robinson did not rape Mayella, nor the cause of her injuries, he is found guilty and sentenced to death anyway by the jury. Despite the case going to appeal, Robinson loses hope and tries to escape, but is shot dead by prison guards.
Life goes on in Maycomb after the case, and things return seemingly to normal. Despite his victory in court, Bob Ewell is still unsatisfied with life in Maycomb and begins to harass people to do with Robinson’s defence as revenge for the town further shunning him and his family. First, he threatens Atticus because he went to the defence of Robinson, then breaks into the judge’s home and then harasses Tom’s widow on her way to work. The final straw happens when he tries to kill Jem and Scout on their way home after a Halloween pageant at their school.
At its heart, To Kill a Mockingbird deals with justice, racism and inequality as well as a society willing to foster the prejudices of adults on to children. As Scout is the only point of view character, it’s interesting, and more than a little nostalgic, to remember just what innocence and curiosity feels like again. It’s written as if everything new gives you that sense of magical wonder we all experienced at Christmas. The story is told as if you’re only able to draw on a limited pool of knowledge, innocence growing into understanding through terrible events that your parents try to protect you from.
Atticus, always the consummate gentleman, open-minded and seeking only justice and equality, is shocked at the guilty verdict of Tom Robinson. It is all the more shocking when you know it’s so clearly the wrong verdict, that even a young child can see it clear as day. As Atticus explains later on to his children, even though Maycomb is a small place, its people are generally good and kind to another, prejudice and racism makes people illogical, unable to see clearly. It is clearly wrong, a powerlessness expressed by Atticus, felt by Jem and angering parts of the community, but have to accept that the law, is the law.
As bitter and traumatic as this event may be, the kids accept, through the steady and consistent example of their father, that life will go on, turn out for the better and justice, one day will be consistent. Thank goodness the world has moved a long way from those days. It’s still not quite there yet in terms of absolutely equality, but progress is being made, slowly and surely.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those books that is a must read for all. Though it starts off slowly, the tale is engrossing in the way that it reminds you simultaneously what bring a kid feels like again, just as much as the pain of growing up hurts when you find out that adults are usually massive hypocrites on all sorts of things, but it also gives you an idea of just how difficult it is to raise children and pass on to them a good sense of ethics and morality. Most importantly, it gets you thinking about your own moral code, and whether you can improve on it.
Seminal and thought provoking piece of work that is still relevant today.
Should I read it?
Yes, absolutely, you should. It won’t take you long and your reward will be a warm fuzzy feeling afterwards.