By Harper Lee
Any coward can fight a battle when he's sure of winning; but give me the man who has pluck to fight when he's sure of losing. That's my way, sir; and there are many victories worse than a defeat. — George Eliot
My first reading of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was when I picked up a cheap paperback edition of the book—I can remember how it felt in my hands, with the brittle pages ready to crumble at the edges—with Gregory Peck on the cover. And that is all I remember about that afternoon, except for what was happening between the covers of that paperback, for the novel completely captured me. I had not seen the film and this was before the days of the Internet, or a time when the book would appear on school reading lists far and wide, so I came to it blessedly free of the sort of pop-cultural osmosis that would have spoiled the story for me before I ever had a chance to read it.
The plot is relatively simple: Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in Depression-era South Alabama, defends an African American man named Tom Robinson who is charged with rape. Told from the point of view of Finch’s young daughter Jean Louise, AKA “Scout” Finch, the story strips away the polite social veneer from bigotry and race hatred in the fictional small town of Maycomb, Alabama. In the course of the novel, Scout and her brother Jem learn to the full, as no child should have to learn, the extremes to which prejudice can drive some of their otherwise friendly neighbors. And yet, lest anyone should think the story is unremittingly grim, it also shines with compassion for all sorts of marginalized people on the fringes of society, such as the Finch’s reclusive neighbor “Boo” Radley, the ogre of local gossip and a beacon to Scout and Jem’s insatiable curiosity.
Mockingbird is also—and frequently—laugh-out-loud funny, especially to anyone who has grown up in similar surroundings. At first reading, I knew these people as I knew my own family: the neighborhood ladies who jealously guard their secret cake recipes, the aunt who is scandalized by Scout running around in overalls and wishes her niece would try to be more of a “lady,” the bewildered young school ma’am who faces children unlike any she had ever imagined teaching. Throughout the story, Lee’s control of her material is impeccable, balancing humor with tension until the climactic courtroom battle over Tom Robinson and its frightening aftermath. Yet as the novel draws to its close, the tone is elegiac, wistful, and calming:
Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives . . . Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley front porch was enough.
To Kill a Mockingbird was made into a film in 1962 and starred Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. If you have never seen the film, it will air on Turner Classic Movies on Saturday, May 30 and is very much worth seeing—but as the old saying goes, “Read the book. Don’t wait for the movie!”
Stay tuned for the publication of the recently-discovered sequel: Go Set a Watchman, which is due for publication in July of 2015.
For more on To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee:
The Big Read
“Harper Lee’s Maycomb helped shape those of us . . .” on al.com
“Harper Lee’s Novel Achievement” on Smithsonian.com
Go Set a Watchman on JCLC catalog
Go Set a Watchman on Amazon
Mary Anne Ellis
Southern History Department