Happy Birthday Harper Lee! Today in celebration of her birthday I am reviewing her only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I will admit I enjoyed it but not loved this in high school, but I still managed to see why it was wonderful and a classic. Perhaps it was just being the 15 year old, or maybe it is now I am older (it always changes most things), but I can see it differently now, similarly, but different. One of those complex emotions.
Harper Lee’s full name is Nelle Harper Lee, she was the youngest of five and was raised in Alabama. Her only book was To Kill a Mockingbird, she did have a second but it was never published. Famously Lee has never extensively discussed her book or any insights about its meaning and the popularity, and has stayed out of the public eye. Growing up Lee was friends with author Truman Capote and together they wrote an article in the New Yorker which Capote then turned into In Cold Blood, his nonfiction masterpiece. It is said that Atticus in her novel is based on her father who was also a lawyer and who once defended two black men accused of murdering a white shopkeeper. She has though played down any real correlations despite there being similarities, however Capote once said he thinks that certain things she wrote were true and being neighbours and friends he initially used similar aspects of their childhood in his own work.
Tomboy Scout Finch comes of age in a small Alabama town during a crisis in 1935. She admires her father Atticus, how he deals with issues of racism, injustice, intolerance and bigotry, his courage and his love.
To Kill a Mockingbird was finished in 1959 and it won a Pulitzer Prize award and became a best seller. It soon become a classic novel and has become influential, if not a powerful message about race, inequality, and human decency. It is not only its story, but the characters that people admire and idolise, the key figure being Atticus Finch, father of the narrator, Scout. Naturally is also became campaigned against to be removed from classrooms and libraries. We can’t even look down on the past as the list of banned books still rings high and true today for the same idiotic reasons.
Atticus Finch, who is an attorney, and all round upstanding man, is always listed on the top characters of all time, or most influential characters, or most idolised characters, and really, it is probably true. To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic for a reason, and Lee deals with intense issues in this unjust world with one man trying to do the right thing. As a character he presents unwavering morality, strength, and honour, having an impact not only in the books pages, but with the readers as well. He was a hero not for super powers or for saving the world, he was a hero for doing the right thing.
To Kill a Mockingbird opens with a look into history with a Finch ancestor fleeing religious intolerance in England, settling in Alabama. The main story takes place a few years after the Great Depression. The narrator is Scout Finch who is retelling her story of when she was young and the events that unfolded around her in her town of Maycomb. Initially we see nothing about the racial drama that unfolds later on; instead Lee introduces us to Scout, her brother Jemm, and their friend Dill. The trio enjoy their summer but are fascinated, yet terrified, of “Boo” Radley, a reclusive neighbour. This introduction about Boo and the children go on but it isn’t long before the tentative relationship between the children and Boo is replaced by the appointment of Atticus to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman.
The descriptions in the book and excellent, the way Lee describes the heat, the people, the town, the naivety of children and the insights they provide, and also the way she portrays characters relationships to one another is well done. She doesn’t shy away from the facts and the details of the town life, the trial, or the social messages and reaction; that is where some power comes from. And her language in doing so makes it what it is as much as the events. Her language is deep and the lessons you take from this book are timeless.
One of my absolute favourite aspects of this novel is the fact that Atticus lets his children call him Atticus instead of father. This is the purest and simplest way to demonstrate him as man, Atticus does it as a sign of respect as he sees every one as equal, despite their age, class, race or authority. Not sure I would do the same, but it is very telling nonetheless. The title of the book comes from Atticus, who tells Jemm it is a sin to kill a Mockingbird. Scout questions this and is told that “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
What I found interesting in this book is Lee’s wonderful way of telling this story. By using Scout, a young girl with very little knowledge of the world, who is always looking for answers and explanations, to tell this story, you get great conversations and relationships between characters. Certainly the best are those with Atticus and Scout, though her own opinions of her father are from the view of a child she has some very insightful words, and not only about him. She uses people she knows to discuss the issues around her, more so since the trial began as the people in the town are less than sympathetic, and they also cannot understand Atticus’ desire to defend Tom.
Scout is feisty and is willing to fight for her father which is admirable and a wonderful representation of her relationship to Atticus, but also of her own personality. While Atticus can defend himself, though in more moral and less violent manners, a wonderful scene is when the three children manage to essentially shame a lynch mob by making them see things from Atticus’ perspective. The wonderful quotes that can be taken from this novel are vast, but “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” is a key theme among the many.
What this trial demonstrates is how divided the world was, there is a coloured balcony above the courtroom, away from the main area, and the tone, interactions, and outcomes are certainly surprising. Perhaps this is because reading this in 21st century Australia has a separate impact, but that doesn’t stop my knowledge of what it was like to some degree. Even though Lee has denied any strong autobiographical connection, the story of Tom is not a single fictional case. But even though she writes about this injustice and this ill treatment for a man accused, Lee has added so much more into this narrative than it is also about so much more than the colour of his skin essentially, it is about growing up, learning about the world, class and society, and basically loss of innocence.
The trial is detailed and well planned out; Lee keeps it poignant and fiery, while still upholding all the virtues Atticus has in a town that has already condemned Tom. We go through testimonials and cross examinations, Atticus does his job well. Tom’s point of view is not forgotten, we see his sides of things, and you do know right away of his innocence, but that is nothing in the eyes of the law it seems. That is where your investment goes, into the anticipation and hope that this super hero Atticus Finch, with all his deep wisdom and goodness, can help save Tom for a crime of simple being black.
The outcome of the case has consequences for everyone and the victims are far spread. I won’t reveal the ending, there is a lot in it that speaks more volumes than I could convey, but Lee does a wonderful job. She takes us through this journey and this emotional turmoil about these characters but she almost adds some justice at the end, but in a way she doesn’t. Scout pulls this together wonderfully in her voice and as I said, I think that makes so much difference compared to if it were a simple third person, or another characters point of view, you need her innocence, her loss of innocence, and her perspective telling this story. She uses all the wisdom her father has given her and by the end of the book you know it has sunk in.
There is a movie version on this book, with Gregory Pack as Atticus. It is pretty amazing. It would have to be for this book I think. Made in 1962 it is in black and white but do not let that deter you, it manages to bring all the emotion and the drama from the book and make it just as moving and important as the book. It is reported that Lee visited the set during filming and she did do a lot of interviews to support the film. The film was as popular as the book, with eight Oscar nominations and four awards including Best Actor for Gregory Peck.
The quotes from this book are fantastic, I need to list some, for the pure fact they are insightful and so very true, but there are so many more.
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
“Atticus, he was real nice.”
“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”
“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself.”
So it is today that we wish Harper Lee a very happy birthday, I thank her for this book, and while To Kill a Mockingbird will give you no useful advice on killing Mockingbirds, it will teach you not to judge a man by the colour of his skin.