on May 25, 2010
It hardly seems like 50 years since I picked up this book late one rainy night when it was first published, after my mom had been raving about the book for weeks, trying to get me to read it. Well, what the heck, the late movie was boring that evening and there was nothing else on the TV... next thing I knew, it was two o'clock in the morning and I had just turned the final page on what was the most magical reading experience of my entire life.
From the opening line, "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow..." Lee hooks the reader with a deceptively simple story of a Southern family and a Southern town caught up in a cataclysmic moral crisis, and keeps us enthralled till the very last word. Lee's writing style is that of the storyteller who mesmerizes her audience telling a tale so simple, yet so compelling, that you never want it to end. Her narrator is Scout Finch, a delightfully devilish little tomboy who sees her world through the all-observant eyes of childhood. Scout is one of the most enchanting characters in modern American fiction. She's bright, funny, totally real; there's nothing contrived about her. She's someone we all knew in first or second grade, or wished we'd known. Scout lives with her brother Jem, four years her senior, her lawyer father Atticus, and their housekeeper Calpurnia, in a sleepy Alabama town where everybody knows or is related to everybody else. Lee spends the first half of the book drawing us into the life of the town and the Finch family, Scout's hilarious and problematic adjustment to first grade, and brings us into the mystery surrounding the notorious-yet-never-seen Boo Radley. The second half of the book is about the moral crisis that tears the town apart.
Lee has a way of saying a lot by saying very little, and her laconic statement that the people of Maycomb had recently been told they had nothing to fear but fear itself sets the time squarely in 1933, the depths of the Great Depression. Times were bad for most people in small Southern towns; they were especially bad for poor whites and all blacks. In 1933 the South was rigidly segregated down every possible line, and a white woman's false accusation of rape was enough to get a black man hanged. When Mayella Ewell accuses Tom Robinson of rape, in the eyes of most of the white populace, Tom has been tried, convicted and is awaiting execution. Judge Taylor disagrees, and asks Atticus to take Tom's case.
In Atticus Finch, Lee created what would eventually grow to be the best-loved character in all American fiction. Atticus is a loving but not a doting father, an able lawyer, and an individual of towering integrity. He takes Tom's case because he knows Mayella's accusation is full of holes, and he believes Tom is as deserving of good legal representation as anyone else. Atticus knows better than anyone else how his decision to take the case will affect his children, but as he explains to Scout, who wonders how Atticus can be right if everybody else thinks he's wrong, if he didn't take the case, he could never hold his head up in front of his children again.
Atticus knows he's fighting a losing battle, but deep inside himself he believes he may lose a battle but win a bigger war. The chapters describing Tom Robinson's trial and Atticus's defense are some of the most powerful in American fiction. On of the most moving passages in the book is at the end of the trial when the town's black minister tells Scout to "Stand up. Your father's passin'."
Along with Scout and Atticus Finch, Lee created a host of other memorable characters. Jem is the perfect big brother for Scout, sometimes protective, sometimes antagonistic, always encouraging. Lee only needs to pen a few details about Calpurnia to bring her vividly to life: "She was all angles and bones; she squinted; her hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard." Calpurnia isn't the stereotypical Mammy of Tara; she's a no-nonsense maid and housekeeper who dishes out ample amounts of love and old-fashioned discipline in equal doses. And Miss Maudie Atkinson is a delightful creation; funny, ditzy, and wise all at once. Anyone would want her for their next-door neighbor.
The two major villains, Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella, are compelling characters in their own right. Bob Ewell is quintessential white trash, spending the family's relief money on moonshine while his children go hungry. But poor Mayella is as much victim as villain; we can't help but feel for her, ostracized and isolated, knowing only her father's physical violence and sexual abuse; her attempted seduction of Tom Robinson is a desperate cry for love and affection. But, as Lee reminds us, it's all for naught. Tom Robinson was dead the minute Mayella, caught in the act of attempted seduction by her father, opened her mouth and screamed.
After the highlight of the trial, the book might have slid into anticlimax, but it's Lee's genius that she keeps the tension heightened after the trial and its denouement, through Ewell's drunken, insane attack on Atticus through his children, and their rescue by Boo Radley. And after everything she, her family, and the town have been through, what has Scout learned from all this? Pretty much what Atticus set out to teach her all along: that you can't get to know a person until you put on his shoes and walk around in them.
I turned the final page of "To Kill A Mockingbird", unbelieving that it had come to an end. I opened the front cover and immediately started reading it over again from page one. At two o'clock in the morning. The book had that much of an effect on me. One doesn't just read this book; one experiences it. At best, one lives it. I did.
on July 28, 2002
Oddly, I'd never read To Kill a Mockingbird as a high school student. Nor had I ever seen the famous film with Gregory Peck. Fortunately, I also avoided learning the entire plot through cultural osmosis. Sure, I knew who Boo Radley was-- didn't I? Atticus Finch... yeah, I know who that is... right?
Boy, was I wrong. Last week I finally decided it'd been long enough, and I sank into Harper Lee's only novel with high expectations. And I was certainly not disappointed. With its slow, warm and evocative opening chapters, Mockingbird starts off like a sulty summer day in the South. Lee depicts a South of "whistling bob white," biscuits and warm milk, and ladies who on the hottest days bathe twice by noon and then douse themselves in lavender-smelling powder.
Jean-Louise Finch, better known as Scout, narrates the story with the keen eye of an adult looking back on a childhood rich with incidents that shaped who she has become. Scout reminded me of some of Carson McCullers's heroines (Member of the Wedding, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), but without the morbid loneliness and heartbreak. Scout might be described as a tomboy, but that would be doing her a disservice. Her adventures with her older brother Jem, and their dimunitive friend Dill (real name: Charles Baker Harris. "Your name's longer'n you are," Jem points out) evoke the timeless place of childhood.
As for Atticus Finch, what can one say about a father who seems to embody the greatest of virtues? He is tolerant, patient, kind, and understanding. He does not meddle with his children's affairs, he speaks to them as fellow adults (he allows them to call him "Atticus"), and his skill as a lawyer is legendary. Lee presents Atticus in a tough and sensitive manner, so that his believability is paramount.
The other characters in the book are also depicted with great skill: Aunt Alexandra, bane of Scout's existence; Miss Maudie, who gives as good as she gets when harassed by intolerant neighbors; Calpurnia, the ever-present black maid who has as much a hand in Jem and Scout's well-being as Atticus; and of course the Ewells, whose poverty and ignorance help set the plot in motion.
Harper Lee has written a wonderful book that pulses with life, with compassion, and easy good humor. Watching Atticus face down an angry mob set on lynching a black man, or racing with Jem as he escapes gunshots from the Radley house, or sitting with Scout as she forced to join her aunt's church lady reception, or taking that long midnight walk with Jem and Scout, is pure joy; these are scenes that reverberate in the reader's mind and surely in the minds of several generations of readers. I'm glad I can now say I'm one of them.
on November 7, 2001
I just finished this book a few moments ago, and I am completely awed by this story. Harper Lee has done an excellent job bringing this 1930s Alabama childhood to life. I can see why To Kill a Mockingbird has won the Pulitzer Prize, garnered an Academy Award for the movie version, and ultimately become a timely classic enjoyed by many generations.
To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of two children, sister Scout and brother Jem, and their childhood during three years in the midst of the Great Depression. Scout and Jem spend most of their summers with their summer-neighbor, Dill, making up plays and spying on the town recluse, Boo Radley. During the school year (minus Dill, who goes back home to Mississippi), Scout finds herself in trouble one too many times and struggles with the concept of being a lady, especially when all she wants to do is wear overalls and beat up her classmates.
Then everything changes one fall.... Scout and Jem's father, Atticus Finch, a lawyer in their town of Maycomb, Alabama, is appointed to the defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman (although not of the highest caliber), Mayella Ewell. The fact of this case rocks the town of Maycomb, and with Scout and Jem feeling the brunt of their classmates ridicule when they realize Atticus is on Tom's side.
I was simply floored while reading this novel. I wasn't expecting a "classic" to be so readable. Now I know what I've been missing! To Kill a Mockingbird is a piece of our American history that depicts racism and prejudice, childhood innocence, and the perseverence of a man who risked it all to stand up for what he believed in. Wonderful portrayal and one I will read again.
on August 16, 2004
Somehow my education did not impose on me a reading of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," although I saw the excellent movie based on it several times. What a pleasure to discover, when finally picking up the book in my middle age, that the people who inhabit this book spring fully grown directly from the mind of Harper Lee herself, rather than just the actors in the film.
Harper Lee has written not a single one-dimensional character, and has created a few of the best realized and strongest characters ever put into print: not just Atticus, Jem, and Scout Finch, but also the dignified Calpurnia, the eager Dill, the peaceful but ghostly Boo Radley, even the degraded and predatory Ewell family. These characters jump off the page like in no other novel I can recall. There is no doubt in my mind that these folks are as real as any of the people I see walking down the street, and I feel for Atticus in particular a similar sort of astonished respect as I do for my own father.
If somehow the book itself has passed you by, or if (sadly) it was imposed on you for a class assignment when you were young, revisit it. It's one of the best ever written.
on April 7, 2007
There used to be a time that the word "classic" meant something. Nowadays, it seems to only mean "more than ten years old"; quality doesn't come into the equation at all. Take, for example, the cable channel American Movie Classics, which typically features movies that are forgettable regardless of age. I prefer the classic definition of "classic", one that means something that is not only really good but withstands the test of time.
Put another way, look at the Da Vinci Code. A decent book and a phenomenal best-seller, but will people still be reading it decades from now? Only time will tell. Time, however, has already told on Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and it is clearly, by any use of the word, a classic. Although forty-seven years old, it is still as good as ever.
Set in the town of Maycomb, Alabama during the Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird tells the tale of the Finch family: widower father Atticus, young son Jem and younger daughter (and narrator) Scout. Atticus, an attorney, has been appointed to represent Tom Robinson, accused of raping a 19-year-old girl named Mayall Ewell. Since Tom is black and Mayall is white, guilt is assumed by most of the town and the trial a mere formality. The truth plays little part.
Maycomb is a stratified society. There are the "respectable" people, who - with or without money - are considered the aristocrats of the community. The Finches fit into this category. There are the poorer white people, from the poor-yet-proud Cunninghams to the "trashy" Ewells. At the bottom are the blacks. Though Atticus refuses to participate in this classism (and tries to lead his children to do the same), he is pragmatic enough to acknowledge its existence.
This novel may have the trial of Tom Robinson as its centerpiece, but there is plenty more going on as we take a tour of an impoverished town in the Deep South. With this book, Lee has written one of the Great American Novels. And while some great authors are not easily readable (for example, Faulkner), Harper Lee holds the reader from the beginning to end.
Has there been any author who has written something so great in his or her only effort? Yes, there are authors like Margaret Mitchell who wrote Gone With the Wind (which has a far more romantic version of the Old South), but her career was cut short by an early death; Lee is still around and still has no other books published. The one book she wrote, however, is considered one of the greatest novels ever written. It is a true classic.
on April 5, 2007
My mother bequeathed her 1962 college edition hardcover to me in 1988, four years after I finished high school. It would be four more years before I myself went away to school, though I knew the story nearly by heart by then.
I reread Mockingbird every year at Eastertime, though I am not particularly religious, nor do I mark this time in any other particularly hopeful way. Many true bibliophiles I know still talk about this book and the way it changed them forever.
It deserves better than to be assigned reading to captive 6th and 10th graders. They read it then because they have to, not because some kind librarian or insightful teacher, or intuitive parent, sends it their way, like a lucky charm.
I am not a Southerner and unless you can call a Western New York born mother and an Owensboro, Kentucky bred father any sort of meaningful Southern influence in my life, I do not know why this story fits my life so well. It filled a need I never even knew was there until I closed its covers on first reading it.
I am a fan of both the writing and its message, its dual edged sword of hope and sorrow, the tragicomic aspect of its mood and setting.
I wanted to be Scout as a tomboy girl and when grown, to be Atticus; my cats have borne those monikers well.
I only wish my husband had not told me I could not name my own son after my hero.
A rare case where the movie and its inspiration are as beloved as its author, To Kill a Mockingbird, N words and all, needs to be read more---and not just as some lame excuse for a paper writing exercise. Scout, Jem and Dill come alive in these pages. They have meaning in their world and in this one.
The dialogue, minus a few colloquiallisms, is readable and real. You will laugh out loud at times when Scout makes her mind known to you.
You'll wish Atticus was a real man. Maybe you'll even feel a little guilty about wanting him to replace your father in real life.
And Tom Robinson? He'll break your heart. He should.
I was once told my Coleman family had some relation to Harper Lee's father's family and, if that bit of fiction has even the remotest grain of truth to it, I am even happier now than I was just having imagined it.
PLEASE READ THIS BOOK.
on October 27, 2010
what a great drama! I tell everyone I know to read it so it doesn't stay a secret outside of school. my favorite part was when the town loses its TEMPER and becomes an angry mob!
on November 29, 2002
This book is absolutely brilliant. I've read the book three times in my life, at ages 13, 18, and 22. With each reading I gain a better appreciation for the storyline, the author, and the moral beliefs that are challenged within these pages. There are few books that increase in complexity the more they are read, and this happens to be one of them. Harper Lee seems to speak to readers of all ages, and no matter how many times this novel is read, the reader will never cease to feel compelled by the message that it delivers.
The story is narrated by Scout, the daughter of Atticus Finch, a criminal defense attorney in the Deep South who is assigned to defend a black man in his trial for raping a white girl. The novel tells the story of how Scout and her family endure the threatening ridicule from their community for Atticus' loyalty to this man. While Harper Lee delivers the message that black people were discriminated against in the Deep South, the more notable message was the struggle that whites endured when they chose to side with the blacks. There are some extremely comical moments in this book involving Scout and her brother. Therre are also several other interesting sub-plots that help describe the morals, beliefs, and problems in the Deep South during that period of time. Though, my favorite part was Atticus Finch's closing argument during the trial. His monologue constitutes some of the best pages of literature I've ever read.
This was the only novel that Harper Lee ever wrote. Maybe it is best that she never published again. There's no way that she could have ever topped this novel. Not many authors can. This novel will always remain a permanent member of my book collection, and I'm sure I'll be reading it a few more times in my life and gaining something new ever time. Everyone should read this book.
on March 15, 2000
This classic should be made required reading for every person in every culture and in every country. If only everyone would read it, and truly understand, identify with and 'learn' from the story and the message found within its pages, I believe the world would be a happier and peaceful place to live in for all.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" is a 'rich' and compelling story set in 1930s Alabama. It's a story about the purity and innocence of children, about justice (or the lack of it), racism, hypocrisy, human compassion, trust and love (all issues we can relate to) told from the experiences and perspectives of a small child (Scout).
The writing is wonderfully beautiful and charming. You'll fall in love with the depth of inner beauty and innocence found in the 2 children (Jem, and especially his sister, Scout/Jean Louis). You'll find yourself rooting passionately for their father (Atticus Finch) to win his case when he chooses to defend a black man on trial for life, despite much social pressure on Finch to give up the case and veiled threats against him and his family. Watch for the part where Finch cross-examines the "victim" (a white girl who accuses the black man of rape) and during his closing speech. Both are excellent courtroom drama (the best I've come across) and they also reveal a lot of the (ugly) truth behind the case.
Atticus Finch's sense of justice, perseverence and fighting spirit (the way he stood his ground) are most inspiring and touching. Based on what he believes in, he knows he must "do the right thing", all the more since he has 2 young children who look up to him for guidance on the difference between right and wrong.
I also loved reading the precious scenes involving Atticus and his children - Atticus is really a "beautiful" person and a perfect role-model of a dad - at once loving and understanding and patience and fair.
And what about the mysterious recluse, Arthur "Boo" Radley who hasn't left his house in years and has become some sort of a terrifying yet intriguing "legend" among the neighbourhood children? Is he really the madman or evil spirit that the children believe him to be?
This book (and another winner, "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt) should rank highly in everyone's list of must-reads. What a true gem! Read it and be charmed.
Some books so fluidly transcend the stories they contain that the characters and setting almost become incidental to the universal themes they express without contrivance. Such a book exists in Harper Lee's masterful 1960 novel, one of the most revered pieces of fiction this country has ever produced. Set in rural, Depression-era Alabama, it is a classic coming-of-age story about a precocious nine-year old tomboy named Scout. What she experiences is palpable in the virulent racism surrounding the persecution of Tom Robinson, a black man unjustly accused of raping Mayella, the abused white daughter of an unrepentant bigot, Bob Ewell. Representing Tom in court is Atticus Finch, Scout's father and the moral compass of the story.
The plot moves toward a deepening exploration of the intractable conflict between tolerance and ignorance and how the pre-existing environment of hatred and mistrust makes innocent people guilty by pure circumstance. Scout embodies these themes within her own journey toward womanhood and her questions of what society expects of her. Through the travails of Tom and the town's outcast, Boo Radley, and primarily through her father's example, Scout recognizes how innate goodness can exist even in the direst circumstances. Likely because the story is semi-autobiographical, Lee is able to vividly capture the rural south and the pervasive mindset during the Depression with spellbinding accuracy. Yet for all that, the book's lasting legacy has more to do with Lee's particular lierary gift in bringing a genuine universality to her themes.
Other characters weave in and out of the story - including Dill, Scout's wannabe boyfriend and the Truman Capote doppelganger - and each plays a key role in shaping the novel's core conflicts. I have to say that the author's particular literary strengths come to the fore in her empathetic depictions of the evolving relationships between these characters, for example, Scout and her father Atticus, Scout and her brother Jem, the children and Boo. Nothing seems extraneous in the story Lee tells, no small feat for a 336-page novel. She brings intense emotion to her prose, especially in describing the uncontrollable fury created by racial hatred and false accusations, for instance, in the lynch mob scene before the trial and in the vengeful attack on the children. The timing of the book's original 1960 publication turned out to be prescient, as the Civil Rights movement was just becoming national in scope thanks to the efforts of Martin Luther King and his brethren. Even if you have seen the masterful 1962 film, you owe it to yourself to read Lee's literary masterwork and sadly the only novel she ever wrote.