Friday, 2 September 2011

To kill a mockingbird

I found this copy of To Kill a Mockingbird on my mum's shelf and picked it up thinking that if I had it right there I would get around to reading it. I have been doing a bit of preparation for NaNoWriMo, some writing exercises, and thinking of doing some more focussed reading of modern classics rather than drifting haphazardly through the pile of waiting books (cue excuse to go off and trawl the internet for lists of modern classics). I have a copy of The Bell Jar that I bought recently and from the bookshelves downstairs I have selected; The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (read in my 20's), Howard's End (love the film and have old tatty copy from charity shop), Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut and Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that is almost the only novel Dunk owns and that I started reading in the spirit of 'bonding a new relationship' when we were first living together, the bookmark is still at page 130. It seems like a nice varied collection.

Right, back to the book in hand. I had the vaguest of notions about the story of To Kill a Mockingbird, not having even seen the film, and so anticipating mostly racial tension and dramatic courtroom stuff. The charm of this book (not sure if 'charm' is an appropriate word here) is that it is such a small book that says such big things. It is such an enjoyable straightforward narrative; I feel like I have read so many books with plot lines that jump backwards and forwards, or tell things in a confusing order, or from multiple points of view, it was nice to find one that just gets on and tells the story. The book is narrated by Scout, looking back from adulthood, and follows a period of three years during which she and her brother Jem find their idyllic childhood disrupted by a crime and court case, and it's consequences, that divides their community and bring them into close contact with the adult world. Their twosome becomes a threesome when they are joined for the summer by Dill, the nephew of a neighbour. Their playground extends as far as being within calling distance of their housekeeper Calpernia and not having a mother to fuss over them they pretty much please themselves. Life is marred only by the presence of their mysterious and disagreeable neighbours the Radleys. Over time fear of them turns to curiosity but much bigger things are in store for their family. The character of their father Atticus Finch has become a byword in integrity and morality (both in the book and by readers in general), and he is appointed to defend a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. Though the book is set in the 1930's it is in reality addressing the issues of segregation and racism that were being confronted by the civil rights movement during the period it was written in the 1950's. The thing that really strikes about the novel is how separate the lives of black and white people are, and even though all the 'genteel' households have black servants there is a real barrier between them. And the fact that on both sides people seem very accepting of the situation, as if it is normal and natural, and while Atticus tries desperately to offer some reassurance to Tom Robinson (the accused man) they both know that in reality there is no possibility of justice. I'm not sure if it was supposed to be funny but I found myself laughing at the nighttime scene where Atticus is sitting alone outside the jail. He is sure an attempt will be made to lynch Tom and so takes it on himself to act as guard, and the men arrive, and there is this terrible atmosphere of fear and menace, and then the children barge in to the situation and Scout chatters away to one of the men she recognises, utterly unaware of what was happening, and inadvertently diffuses the threat.
And in amongst all the politics it is the story of a little girl trying to make sense of the world. Scout is such a lovely character, loyal and affectionate, but also thoughtful and intelligent. The moments that stuck out for me were her first day at school, I really can't believe I hadn't heard this quoted somewhere as it is the most wonderful lambasting of the school system; Miss Caroline is annoyed to find that Scout can already read:

"Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I'll take over from here and try and undo the damage" (p.23)

and Scout's reflection on school:

"as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I could not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me." (p.38)

Scout is taken in hand by the arrival of her aunt Alexandra who disapproves of her running wild and her closeness to her brother and tries to bring a more feminine influence over her:

"Who was the 'her' they were talking about? My heart sank: me. I felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me, and for the second time in my life I thought of running away. Immediately." (p.140)

The book is criticised on many fronts, for having weak, stereotypical black characters or for having an overly romanticised view of southern society, but I am not sure these things detract from what it says. She shows us this ordinary town, populated mostly by 'good' people, the judge, the sherrif, Miss Maudie, Miss Rachel, even Mrs Dubose turns out to be of solid stuff, and then she shows us that this same society hands out justice based on race, that a man will be convicted not because he is guilty but because he is black. She shows this, and she shows us in no uncertain terms that this is wrong. The lesson that Atticus repeatedly teaches his children is not to judge another person without putting yourself in their shoes. I loved the scene at the end where Scout stands on the Radley porch and tries to see the world as Boo Radley saw it. The idea that you need to step outside your own cosy world and into another unfamiliar one in order to understand what needs to be changed is no less true now. I could talk about this book all night, or I could shut up. It is a hard book to write about because you don't want to end up spouting platitudes or even imply that the world, or specifically the justice system, is any better or less prejudiced now than it was then. Just read it.


  1. Yep - had to study this for my O level - loved this book but a lot of my classmates objected and winced at the proliferation of the "n" word - some walked out. My school was in Tottenham.

    Incidentally, I happen to mention to one of my younger work colleagues about the old CSE exam papers and he looked at me as if I was crazy.

    Take care

  2. If someone looked a little harder they would find my extensive collection of modern classics… Hesse, Kafka, Sartre, Steinbeck et al. Some of which I may get around to reading one day ;-)


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