A textbook experience. That’s how it started for me and how, looking back now, I imagine it was all it was meant to be. Little did anyone know, myself included, that I would carry it with me to adulthood and revisit it whenever I needed the good dose of moral guidance and dry humour that this book provides, if one is so inclined to it.
I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. I don’t know if it’s a standard high school book in every country but in Belize (yes, I’m from Belize!) it stands amongst staple titles as diverse as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
I don’t remember the exact year I had to read it but it was either Second or Third Form (the equivalent of 10th and 11th grade). To be honest, the reason why I don’t remember the exact year is probably down to the fact that, upon my first reading of it, it didn’t make much of an impact. *wince* Thinking about it now makes me bow my head in shame for the literary ignorance of fetus Venecia.
I kept the book, though. Even though, for some reason, I didn’t particularly take to the book, I did appreciate it for what it is: a classic that portrays important social issues. Also, who the hell gets rid of books? I guess I could have donated it but I generally have a hard time parting with books and prefer keeping them around.
You don’t know how grateful I am now that I decided to keep it. Seriously, it’s mind blowing knowing that I could have easily parted ways with it.
Once in a while I re read books. It’s generally my favourites (I mean, who doesn’t do that?) but every so often I pick up a book that I have “in stock” just to try it out again. That’s exactly what happened with To Kill a Mockingbird, a couple years after first reading it.
It was similar to an epiphany. I fell in love with the book, the development of the characters, the beautiful scenery, the social issues tackled by the story, along with the feeling of nostalgia and, if not optimism, then a sense of eye-opening wonder grounded in reality.
I don’t want to romanticize my writing to point that my humble two cents on the book trivializes its huge impact, importance and relevance (even to this day). However, I also don’t want to minimize my feelings for the book as that is the main reason for me wanting to write about it. I’ll do my best to try to keep a good balance.
The book revolves around topics such as racial inequality and racism, rape and morality. I find it funny how this book is generally thought of, now, as being for children and young adults when, throughout the book, there are a number of scenes that don’t particularly strike me as being “kid friendly”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to young adults reading this and, honestly, it’s good for children to contemplate on these topics. How else can we strive for a generation free from constricting and exclusive paradigms?
My point, however, is that Harper Lee didn’t write the book intending it to be for a younger audience. Yes, it may feel like we experience the narration through a six year old girl but, whether you criticise this particular tidbit or not, Scout does not sound like your average six year old. She is wise and although we do experience her childlike wonder and exploits, the narration style is that of an adult. Why? If you look closely, you’ll realise from the first page that what we are reading is a retelling of the memories of a now adult Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. That’s because the book was meant for adults.
The story allows the reader to witness a sort of destruction of innocence in the children portrayed. Scout is the narrator but her experiences are rarely isolated. Her journey is along side her older brother Jem (Jeremy Atticus Finch), and their summertime companion, Dill (Charles Baker Harris).
Not only are Scout’s realisations and changes documented but so are Jem’s. Jem, the protective older brother, also proves to be Scout’s role model and best friend. He is the creative and brave leader of the group whose growth – morally, intellectually and physically – is particularly noted.
Dill is another story. He is an outsider, only in Maycomb for the summers. However, he easily becomes a very colourful and important character. Also, you can look forward to his outrageous stories and love of the limelight. Funfact! He is said to be based off fellow author Truman Capote, who wrote In Cold Blood. He and Lee were childhood friends who, as children, had similar escapades as Scout, Jem and Dill.
Along with them, the reader begins to question the day to day occurrences of small town life. I didn’t grow up in southern United States of America. I grew up in a small, developing Caribbean country. However, the narration style used by the wonderful Harper Lee is such that you can visualize every aspect of Maycomb, Alabama, hear the voices of the townsfolk and experience the rollercoaster of emotions evoked by the children you follow around.
Also striking is the portrayal of Atticus Finch. A widower, he is kind and quiet yet firmly principled. He treats his children as his equals and is never condescending, quite frequently opting to patiently explain, justify and rationalise with them.
He is also the most respectable lawyer in Maycomb and, through him, the impact of racism on the justice system is highlighted and criticised. However, it is not only racism that can be observed in the little town but a general intolerance for anyone who steers away from the status quo. Atticus becomes a moral compass, not only for Scout, Jem and Dill, but also for us readers.
As the excerpt the title comes from says, “They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”. Throughout the book more than one mockingbird emerges and slowly the passage previously quoted, and the title, take on a very deep and heart-warming meaning.
Some may say that the book is idealistic and to a certain extent I agree with that. The follow up to this book, Go Set a Watchman, explores this but that is another blog post for another time. However, I will never criticize this book for being “too idealistic”. In my opinion, in a world where there is so much negativity and too many shades of grey, this book proves to be both simplistic and complex.
Through this seemingly simple story that takes place in Alabama, we see the everyday life of children that includes playing, talking to neighbours and drinking lemonade in the shade after playing in the sun. However, it is through these, and admittedly other profound and dark moments, that many lessons in tolerance and growth are revealed.
If you, dear reader, have read the book, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did and still do. If you haven’t, I truly urge you to and I hope this little commentary motivates you to.