I’ve been meaning to reread To Kill a Mockingbird for a couple years now; CBR Bingo’s Fahrenheit 451 category was the perfect excuse to finally get around to rereading Harper Lee’s classic. According to the American Library Association To Kill a Mockingbird, which was first published in 1960, was the seventh most banned book in 2017. Most of the bans against Mockingbird come from its use of profanity and racial slurs as well as the adult themes of rape and incest but I think sometimes the most important books are the hardest ones to read.
“Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “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.”
To Kill a Mockingbird is set during the Great Depression in Maycomb County, Alabama and is narrated by six-year old Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch. Scout and her older brother, Jem, are being raised by their father, Atticus, a respected lawyer and widower. Scout makes many keen observations about her neighbors but the Finch children are most intrigued by their neighbor Arthur “Boo” Radley. Scout, Jem and their friend Dill spend their summers make-believing they are the Radley family and trying to get notes to Boo.
The novel takes place over about three years and is essentially two stories: the Finch children’s previously mentioned obsession with the neighborhood recluse, Boo Radley, and the trial of Tom Robinson.
Mayella Ewell, the daughter of the town drunk, accuses Tom Robinson, a black man, of raping her and Atticus Finch is assigned to be Tom’s lawyer. In the months leading up to the trial Scout and Jem get a lot of flack from their schoolmates for their father’s case and Atticus has to face an angry mob intent on lynching Tom before the trial even begins. The trial is one of the best extended scenes in literature; there is a reason Atticus Finch is such a beloved literary figure and it isn’t just because Gregory Peck played him in the movie.
“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”
It shouldn’t be a spoiler, both because this novel has been out for 60 years and it is set in the South, but despite performing a flawless defense Atticus is unable to get an acquittal for Tom. Mayella’s father however feels humiliated by the events of the trial and he spits in Atticus’s face, tries to break into the judge’s house and goes after the Finch children on Halloween night. It is on Halloween that our two major plots come together in a surprising end.
There is little more I can add that hasn’t been said in countless reviews over the last half century but To Kill a Mockingbird is such an important book. It is so many things but underneath its many layers Mockingbird is primarily a coming of age story. Scout is such a smart, precocious narrator and her youthful, wide-eyed innocence gives the reader a unique perspective on 1930s (and even modern) race relations.