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To Kill a Mockingbird Mass Market Paperback – October 11, 1988
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"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.... When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out."
Set in the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird follows three years in the life of 8-year-old Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus--three years punctuated by the arrest and eventual trial of a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Though her story explores big themes, Harper Lee chooses to tell it through the eyes of a child. The result is a tough and tender novel of race, class, justice, and the pain of growing up.
Like the slow-moving occupants of her fictional town, Lee takes her time getting to the heart of her tale; we first meet the Finches the summer before Scout's first year at school. She, her brother, and Dill Harris, a boy who spends the summers with his aunt in Maycomb, while away the hours reenacting scenes from Dracula and plotting ways to get a peek at the town bogeyman, Boo Radley. At first the circumstances surrounding the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell, the daughter of a drunk and violent white farmer, barely penetrate the children's consciousness. Then Atticus is called on to defend the accused, Tom Robinson, and soon Scout and Jem find themselves caught up in events beyond their understanding. During the trial, the town exhibits its ugly side, but Lee offers plenty of counterbalance as well--in the struggle of an elderly woman to overcome her morphine habit before she dies; in the heroism of Atticus Finch, standing up for what he knows is right; and finally in Scout's hard-won understanding that most people are essentially kind "when you really see them." By turns funny, wise, and heartbreaking, To Kill a Mockingbird is one classic that continues to speak to new generations, and deserves to be reread often. --Alix Wilber
"Remarkable triumph . . . Miss Lee writes with a wry compassion that makes her novel soar."―Life magazine
"Marvelous . . . Miss Lee's original characters are people to cherish in this winning first novel."―The New York Times
"A novel of great sweetness, humor, compassion, and of mystery carefully sustained."―Harper's Magazine
"Skilled, unpretentious and tototally ingenuous . . . tough, melodramatic, acute, funny."―The New Yorker
"Miss Lee wonderfully builds the tranquil atmosphere of her Southern town, and as adroitly causes it to erupt a shocking lava of emotions."―San Francisco Examiner
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Scout gets some valuable life lessons from her father. She sees that doing the moral thing, is not always an easy, or popular, or safe thing to do. But it's the <i>right</i> thing to do. She also learns that everybody deserves to be treated with dignity and to receive justice, no matter what their skin color.
I first read TKAM in high school 50 years ago. I re-read it, as I'm sure many others have, in preparation for reading the recently published "To Set a Watchman". I was touched deeply by this story in 1967. And I'm touched just as deeply in 2017. Harper Lee made us stare prejudice and injustice in the face, and made us want to aspire to be an Atticus Finch. A flag-waving 5 stars!
The novel, like the film, has a seemingly random, anecdotal quality to much of it, weaving around the double threads of the curiosity of the children toward Arthur (Boo) Radley and the trial of Tom Robinson. Like any film adapted from a novel, the film 'To Kill a Mockingbird' had to be selective in which anecdotes to leave out and which ones to include.
Fifty-five years after its original publication and 53 years after the film version, a summary of the novel seems superfluous so I will proceed on the assumption that everyone has been exposed to the novel, the film or both. Assuming that familiarity, the rest of the review will largely consist of my new perceptions of portions I had forgotten or connections I had not made until this reading.
The novel takes place over a span of three years, from 1932 to 1935 and in that time Scout's brother Jem makes a transition from child to adolescent while Scout moves from first to third grade. They are not constant in their perceptions of their small-town world. There is much room to grow and so the revelations do not seem to occur as rapidly as the film version would indicate. Scout has more of an inkling of what the Robinson trial is about as a third grader than she would have had if it occurred at the beginning of the novel. The spooky imagined exploits of childhood boogeyman Boo Radley that consumes the children and their playmate Dill at the beginning has receded into mere curiosity about an extremely reclusive character.
I had forgotten, for example, that Aunt Alexandra moves in with the family toward the beginning of the novel because Atticus knows that they need more adult attention than he is able to give them at this time. He probably also feels that they could benefit from a female presence in the house. According to Scout, they already have a female presence—their black housekeeper/cook Calpurnia. She keeps the household running smoothly and does her best to ensure that the children stay out of mischief. She doesn't live with them 24/7 though and she is black. She is also not a blood relation. Alexandra's presence is felt throughout the rest of the novel, although she doesn't strike me as quite as shrewish as she does in 'Go Set a Watchman,' partially because in that novel she treats the adult Jean Louise almost identically to the child Scout.
Alexandra's presence in the house does bring Scout closer to Calpurnia, whom she sees as too much of a strict disciplinarian at the beginning of the novel, yet in comparison to Alexandra, she actually takes the trouble to try to understand the child's point of view. As talk of the impending trial of Tom Robinson reaches the children through the taunts of children as well as raving adults such as Mrs. Dubose, Cal's feelings on the matter are not lost on Scout. As she attempts to understand Atticus's willingness to defend a black man and not respond to the racial slurs that are tossed at him, she gets a first-hand look at the other side of the racial fence when she goes with Cal to her own church. Cal defends her decision to bring a white girl to a black church to some of the black counterparts to Mrs. Dubose and Scout respects her for her courage in going against the tide of what is expected in THAT society. Cal's pastor Reverend Sykes welcomes her and this familiarity also informs his easy reception of her, Jem and Dill to the 'colored only' balcony of the courthouse for the Robinson trial.
I had also forgotten that Atticus's younger brother, Uncle Jack, appears, scolding Scout at a Christmas gathering for using unsuitable language and hitting her cousin for calling Atticus the unmentionable 'n—lover'. When Scout scolds him politely for not giving her a chance to tell her side of the story, he relents and understands why she got so upset.
Another character I didn't recall is the white businessman Dolphus Raymond. He lives with a black mistress and has spawned several mulatto children. He is seen by the society of Maycomb as a scandalous, immoral eccentric. Scout understands him a bit more after she is taken out of the courthouse with Dill after Dill's crying fit over the racist treatment of the prosecuting attorney to Tom Robinson, encounters Raymond and learns that the liquid he drinks out of the container within his paper sack is not whiskey, as everyone suspects, but Coca-Cola. Scout asks him why he pretends, to which he says:
"I try to give 'em a reason, you see. It helps folks if they can latch onto a reason. When I come to town, which is seldom, if I weave a little and drink out of this sack, folks can say Dolphus Raymond's in the clutches of whiskey—that's why he won't change his ways. He can't help himself, that's why he lives the way he does….It ain't honest but it's mighty helpful to folks. Secretly, Miss Finch, I'm not much of a drinker, but you see they could never, ever understand that I live like I do because that's the way I want to live."
He says he confides in children because they are still young enough to understand him, because they 'cry about the simple hell people give other people without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they're people too."
Another realization I had with this reading is that Atticus is not the sole advocate for equal treatment regardless of race. Their neighbor Miss Maudie Atkinson tells them that there are certain people we hire to do our unpleasant jobs for us and their father is one of them. She is certainly one of the more racially enlightened citizens of the town. As they find out, a white person who believes in treating black people equally must live closeted lives. They learn that Judge Taylor chose Atticus intentionally to be the defense attorney rather than the man that would ordinarily be chosen. Sheriff Heck Tate must maintain order as a lawman and yet he too knows that Tom is innocent and he is sensitive enough to the reclusive Boo to persuade Atticus to 'let the dead bury the dead'. In this town Atticus and Dolpus Raymond are the most uncloseted of the white non-racists in the town.
The novel proceeds in its almost effortless, anecdotal way to reveal steadily stronger moral lessons for both Jem and Scout but particularly for Scout, culminating in the most intense encounter with Bob Ewell and the emergence of Boo Radley. It is easy to see how it earned its classic status. It presents such a clear, articulate and incontrovertible statement regarding racial equality and unequivocal respect for all living things (Jem even adopts a stance of not even crushing insects) that is universal and is why it can still move millions of readers 55 years after its publication. Its success and influence even provided a lesson in tolerance for the real-life model for Atticus, A.C. Lee.
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