I have been asked on a number of occasions what my favourite book of all time was and I have always said it was “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
I followed a link today in a tweet I received because it mentioned the name of my favourite book and found that the book, published in 1960 is celebrating its 50th anniversary!
The article by Charles Leerhsen was published by the Smithsonian Magazine and can be found at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Harper-Lees-Novel-Achievement.html
The article gave me a lot of new information about the book and its author. I found out that she was in fact named Nelle Harper Lee and that many of the characters in the book reflected her own upbringing in Alabama in the 1930′s. That her father was indeed a lawyer and that there was a visitor from the city that used to stay next door to the Lee’s and that he later grew up to be the famous author Truman Capote.
She wrote just the one book although there were attempts at other books which never quite got to publication. I suspect that the reason is fairly obvious in that she produced probably the most perfectly written novel of all time as her first work and to put out a second book of the same (expected) quality would be a very tall order.
I first came across the book when I was in secondary school. I was in the set that was studying for what we (in Britain, at that time) called the General Certificate of Education, Ordinary Level in English Literature. We had some rather forgettable books to study. The pupils who were not supposed to be as bright as us did what was called the Certificate of Secondary Education (C.S.E.) and they got to read “To Kill A Mockingbird” and… they loved it.
So, at the age of 18, in a lull between school and my first job (and a disastrous round of A level exams) I sat down and read the book that I had always been told was so wonderful. From the very first page I found myself entranced by this wonderfully written book.
It is and will always be a story about childhood. The characters of the motherless children Jem and Scout and their friend Dill have adventures in the days when the world was every child’s playground. Except their world was a very dangerous one… this is Alabama in the 1930′s where poor whites live within a short distance of rural black people, the descendents of slaves, regarded as inferior just because of their colour. This is the Alabama of the Ku Klux Klan, the lynchings (an attempt at one being portrayed in the book) and blacks being treated as they were in Apartheid South Africa, unable to eat at the same restaurants as white people or sit next to a white person on a bus.
The novel has, as its central theme, the story of how Jem and Scout’s father, the widower lawyer Atticus Finch, takes on the case of defending a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the abused daughter of the drunken, mostly unemployed poor white inhabitant of Maycomb (the fictional Alabama town where the book is set) Bob Ewell.
This central story acts as the theme to the story but it is a story told through the eyes of Atticus’ children. Being children they seek adventure and find it in the stories that have been told about the “possessed” Boo Radley who acts like some kind of monster of their imagination and lives in a house guarded by his fierce father who no child would want to get near.
When Dill the city child comes along one summer to visit they strike up a friendship and decide to test their braveness on seeing if they can just touch Mr Radley’s House and maybe get a sight of Boo.
Their attempts lead to problems and there is a telling scene of where Scout freezes in fear at the coming of the “monster” Boo and her brother Jem manages to rescue her only to have his pants stuck as he tries to get her out. He has to climb out of them and run off home but when he goes back the next day the pants are there waiting for him all folded up.
This is maybe the first sign that we, the readers get, that the “monster” Boo Radley is maybe just a figment of the children’s wonderful imaginations that were able to run free in the dark setting of this small Alabama town.
In this novel we see the way that imagination plays such a significant part in the lives of these children and that play was a significant and natural part of growing up.
The central theme continues to dominate the book though and we see the realities of life in depression Alabama of the 1930′s. We see the poverty that was there, the racism and also the good people like Atticus Finch bringing up two children without a wife (who has died) and Heck Tate, the Sheriff of Maycomb who tries his best to remain fair to all in extremely difficult circumstances.
The Finch children are chastised and guided by the black cook, Calpurnia who is treated with respect at all times by Atticus.
The “Ewell Case” eventually gets to court and Atticus brilliantly defends Tom Robinson. But this is Alabama in the 1930′s and there is an all-white jury and a white judge who would never believe the words of a black man against those of a white woman, however dubious her claims and however much the evidence shows him to be innocent of the crime.
The children get to witness the trial in the company of the black population of the town who are massed upstairs at the court where they are “allowed” to watch the proceedings.
It is of course a thankless task to defend Tom Robinson and he of course loses the trial and is sent to prison. He tries to run away and is shot dead… this is not a book with a happy ending to the main story.
It is the aftermath of the story, the hatred shown to Atticus for trying to defend a black man and the attempt by the drunken Bob Ewell to kill Atticus’ children that lead to the merging of the two themes that had been running through the book. The “monster” Boo Radley is the saviour of the day and leads to this wonderful piece of writing in the book:
Mr. Tate was trying to dig a hole in the floor with the toe of his boot. He pulled his nose, then he massaged his left arm. “I may not be much, Mr. Finch, but I’m still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife. Good night, sir.”
Mr. Tate stamped off the porch and strode across the front yard. His car door slammed and he drove away.
Atticus sat looking at the floor for a long time. Finally he raised his head. “Scout,” he said, “Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?”
Atticus looked like he needed cheering up. I ran to him and hugged him and kissed him with all my might. “Yes sir, I understand,” I reassured him. “Mr. Tate was right.”
Atticus disengaged himself and looked at me. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”
Atticus put his face in my hair and rubbed it. When he got up and walked across the porch into the shadows, his youthful step had returned. Before he went inside the house, he stopped in front of Boo Radley. “Thank you for my children, Arthur,” he said.
I find myself welling up as I read these words for perhaps the thirtieth time. This is a beautifully written book about childhood that happens to have a backdrop of racism, abuse, rape and incest. It is the children’s story first and foremost and is one of the greatest depictions of what it is like to be a child that has ever been written.
As you can see from the above it has a sparseness of language that makes every word count. It is by far the best novel I have ever read and hopefully many more people will be enticed by its story for the next fifty years.