There’s something wonderfully innocent and warm about this 1950s classic, despite its dead serious subject matter of racism. Life is simple; the goodies are good, the baddies are bad. Fundamentally, the book is about tolerance, for the lonely, weirdo neighbour, for the sick, angry, old lady down the road and, of course, for blacks, otherwise ostracised by 1930s Alabamian white society. I read this book 20 years ago and found it a joy to re-read, although my older more cynical self did think it a bit sentimental at times.
We discover the world through the eyes of Scout, an eight-year-old strong willed tomboy who lives in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama with her father Atticus, a defence lawyer, and twelve-year-old brother Jem. Their mother died from a heart attack when Scout was two and the kind, wise Atticus is doing an admirable job of raising his kids.
Maycomb is a poor but peaceful little town where the local doctor barters deliveries of babies in return for a bushel of potatoes and the telephone operator is responsible for issuing wedding invitations. Children roam free and everyone knows everyone. It’s all very Enid Blyton.
All changes when Atticus takes on the case of Tom Robinson, a black manual labourer accused of raping the daughter of local trailer-trash family, the Ewells. Many in Maycomb are outraged by Atticus taking the side of a black man against the white Ewells and violent controversy ensues, pitting friends and families against each other. The ending is far from the happy one you might have expected from a book like this.
Lee’s character descriptions are her indisputable strength. We have the snobbish and bigoted Aunt Alexandra who becomes the de facto mum for Jem and Scout while Atticus’ trial goes on, the cigarette chewing Judge Taylor who gently tries to steer the case in the right direction, the wise, brave Atticus who serves at the book’s moral beacon and many other brilliantly described personalities. Then there are the vividly described places.
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to read slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the court-house sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; […] Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon…
Lee also astutely captures Scout’s discovery of prejudice, bigotry and gross unfairness; a child’s awakening to the adult world. Although, I did occasionally wonder if someone her age would really understand the complexities of Tom Robinson’s trial.
Ironically, there seems to be precious little tolerance left for the children of the trailer trash family who are all firmly pigeon holed in the baddies category, but let us not forget that this book was written in the 1950s, long before the political correctness of 2015.
To Kill a Mockingbrid is not necessarily a children’s book but it’s an excellent book to read with your kids aged 12 years and up. The sequel to the book, Go Set a Watchman, written 50 years ago, is being published in July and with 40 million copies sold of the first book, the second is sure to attract a lot of readers. Whether or not it is equally good remains to be seen.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is published by Arrow, 309 pages.