Published 1960 by J. B. Lippincott & Co.
Source: checked out from my local library
A gripping, heart-wrenching, and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, it views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father—a crusading local lawyer—risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime.
The first time I read this book was about eight years ago as part of my failed effort to read 50 classics in five years. I was concerned then that I wasn’t the target audience, that I had missed my chance to love this book as so many do. I was wrong. It’s one of the few books I keep after reading with the idea that I may one day reread them. I rarely do. I have a fear that upon reread many of them will not live up to my memory of them, that much of their appeal is in the initial impression. To Kill A Mockingbird (TKAM) would likely have suffered the same fate were it not for my book club.
Every year we read one classic and one nonfiction book. This year I decided to have us read TKAM for our classic so that we would have a greater understanding of Lee going into our nonfiction selection, Casey Cep’s Furious Hours. I briefly considered not actually rereading the book myself, figuring it hadn’t been that long since I first read it and that some prep work for our discussion would bring me back up to speed. I’m so glad I didn’t do that.
This time because I was reading with the intent of being able to discuss the book, I read more intentionally. What are the themes of the book, what are the symbols Lee uses, how do the characters grow and change, does the story sound like it was written from a young girl’s perspective, is this book a good exploration of racism, and is this book a good choice for schools to use?
Let’s address that last question first. This is a beautifully written book that portrays a particular time and place and the people living there. But that alone is not cause to teach the book. TKAM abounds with racial slurs which are certainly time and place accurate, but the question’s been raised as to whether or not young black people should have to read that in the school books. As a white person of a heritage that’s never had to deal with ethnic slurs, I don’t know that I, or any of my peers, are the people who should be making that decision. A more recent concern raised is that, in this book, a young woman lies about being raped. Does this perpetuate the idea that women lie about rape and is that an area teachers will need to address if they are using this book? Because the young woman has falsely accused a black man, if we are going to teach this book, should we also be doing follow up teaching of real life cases like this? If we choose not to use this book to educate our children about racism, are we censoring the book or are we just making different, better choices?
Given all of that, is it even a good choice for adults? I’d like to think (although I know it’s not true but I like to live in a bubble sometimes so let’s just stay there for now, shall we?) that adults will understand that this is a book about racism written by a white woman and told from the perspective of a white person. The black people in the book have no agency; we don’t get to see how racism really affects them. But it’s a starting point, as one would hope it is a starting point for young Scout. Now we need take the next step and read books about racism told by people who actually experience it every day. Read The Hate U Give, The Underground Railroad, Men We Reaped, Between The World and Me, or anything by Langston Hughes or James Baldwin.
I’ll put away my soap box now because, as I said, I still love this book in no small part because of the other things Lee explores - moral education, good versus evil and the impact evil has on the innocent, the judicial system, and social inequality. I love her use of Gothic elements throughout the book and the symbolism of the mockingbird as innocence.
On reread, Lee’s writing still impresses; I’d almost forgotten just how good it is. Her descriptions of Maycomb, the South, and its people are magnificent.
“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop . . . [s]omehow it was hotter then . . . bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. . . . There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.”And can't you just imagine a young child saying this about their parent? I vividly remember being six-years-old and being aware that my mom, at 33, was older than the other kids' moms.
"Atticus was feeble; he was nearly fifty. When Jem and I asked him why he was so old, he said he got started late, which we felt reflected upon his ability and manliness. He was much older than the parents of our school contemporaries, and there was nothing Jem or I could say about him when our classmates said, "My father..."I encourage you to read To Kill A Mockingbird if you haven’t already, for its beautiful writing, for its portrayal of a small town and coming of age and the death of innocence. It is not without flaws, but if you go into it eyes wide open, I think you’ll understand what those are and still be able to appreciate what Lee has done.