Straight up, this is a classic even among classics, and so I’m giving myself permission right up front for this review not to be important or add anything to the conversation at all. I don’t actually think I’m capable of saying anything that hasn’t already been said by people who said it better than I ever could. I feel like the only way this book can be reviewed now is either by looking at it through the context of today’s societal lens, or by relating it to the reader’s personal experience. I’m going to take the latter route, and even then, I’m going to keep it brief because words are wind and carry no meaning.
Well, that last part I’m sort of being facetious about (I am a writer writing things, this, for example), but I feel it’s true in this case. Too much stuff to pack into one review.
I have now read this book three times:
Once in the eighth grade. We read it out loud in class. I remember knowing it was an important book at the time. I also remembering not really understanding why it was important. Everything in it seemed pretty obvious to me. My general reaction was along the lines of ‘Hey this is a thing, moving on now.’
Once ten years ago. I was gobsmacked at my earlier self’s reaction. This was a really good book! This was one of my earliest memories of re-experiencing literature as an adult, and one of the main reasons I’m bent on re-reading classics I read as a teenager when I was too young to appreciate them.
And now, when I am convinced this is one of the finest books ever written. It’s simple and straightforward, yet it packs a mean punch. And at its core are things that have (sadly) only gotten more relevant with time.
My biggest takeaway this time is that the book is also more complex than I remembered. It’s not A BOOK ABOUT RACE, although that is part of it. It’s more like the racism is a symptom of a larger problem: a lack of empathy, a loss of innocence, where innocence is the ability to see past socially constructed boundaries, and human compassion is the exception not the rule. That’s why Scout is the narrator, and Jem is the key to the story. At the beginning of the novel, Jem is like Scout, thinking “folks is just folks,” and by the end he’s sad and bitter, and trying to work out in his head how it is that if folks are just folks, how the world can be the way it is. And how he has to learn to become like his father Atticus, a man who sees how people behave in groups, how they adhere so rigidly to how things are instead of how they should be, and who still believes that most people are nice “when you finally see them.” All of these are sentiments I was completely unable to appreciate as a still-innocent, completely idealistic pre-teen. And even on my second read, I didn’t have enought life experience to really get it.
This is going to be one of those books, like Lord of the Rings, that I bust out every ten years and marvel anew how good it is, and fall in love with the more I read it. I’m cautiously excited for Go Set a Watchman this summer, despite the controversy. Even if it turns out to be a dud, though, we’ll always have Mockingbird.