To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee might just be the perfect book. It is number 5 on the BBC book list, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. As I reread it for this post, I gaped at how perfect it is.
It is essentially many stories told through the eyes of Scout, or Jean Lousie, as Aunt Alexandra calls her. Scout tells of her life in fictional Maycomb, Alabama, as the daughter of an older single man named Atticus, the town lawyer. Her brother Jeremy, or Jem, shares in all of her adventures along with a boy who visits in the summer named Dill. The three do a lot of the normal things kids do, like prowling around neighbor’s yards and making up games, but they also witness the grownup problems.
As I listened to their perspectives on the difficulties faced by the community, I realized that these children were more mature and well-equipped to handle some of the difficulties of adulthood than the adults were. In some ways, the adults acted like children in their handling of racial situations. Scout, Jem, and Dill seemed to be able to see people for what they were, while the many adults in the novel couldn’t see past skin color. However, these children have Atticus as their guide, and he is very nearly a perfect person and parent.
For his perfection, I envied Atticus and found him a little annoying, but only slightly so. I mostly admire him, and I find his way of viewing the world close to the way I try to view it. (The key word here is “try.” I’m no Atticus.) He is always patient and mature. He forgives others for their faults, even when those faults threaten his own life. Of Mr. Cunningham, he says, “He’s a good man but he has his blind spots.” We all have our blind spots, and Atticus remembers this and teaches his children what it means to be a forgiving and good citizen. He is a model of what adults should be like, but unfortunately he is surrounded by adults who don’t have the skills for dealing with the world in the way he does. He and his children suffer for it, but really they learn from it and become better because of it.
When Atticus takes on the defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman, the town nearly explodes with gossip and hate. Neighbors say mean things to the children and Atticus becomes an outcast. Old Mrs. Dubose is particularly hateful and spiteful, and one day her words prompt Jem to act in a fit of rage by pulling up all of her flower beds. While his actions seem justified, Atticus does not let him get away with it. Instead, Jem is taught to be patient and to suffer the consequences of his actions, although Mrs. Dubose doesn’t seem to deserve the deference that a “gentleman” should give. Jem spends a month reading to her and fixes the plants. In the end, she dies and Atticus explains that she was a morphine addict who wanted to die free of the addiction, so much of her pain in the last days of her life was self-inflicted, due to her will to kick the habit. Atticus explains how much he admires Mrs. Dubose for this bravery. Jem comes to see her in a new light, although I still think she was terrible. The lesson overall is not to judge others and to look for the good in them. It reminds me of that great quote about being kinder than necessary for everybody is facing some sort of battle. Atticus understood this and passed that perspective onto his children.
The adults are childlike in their resentment and fear of anybody who is other, and specifically in this novel it is black people and Tom Robinson, accused of rape. The children display this same fear toward their neighbor Mr. Arthur Radley, whom they call Boo. They haven’t seen him, because he never leaves the house. They are curious about Boo and want to coax him out, but the adults keep telling them to leave the Radleys alone. I saw a juxtaposition of the adult and childlike behavior in the way we sometimes fear those who are different and consequently mistreat them for it. Fortunately, the children are able to overcome their fear of the “other” and set an example for the rest of the town.
In the end, the mystery of Boo is “solved” in a dramatic twist that involves him saving the children’s lives. I won’t spoil all of the details, as I haven’t told you how the rape trial turns out, but I assume that the vast majority of you have read and loved this novel. I’m sure you already know how it all turns out. We learn just how wrong it is and would be to kill a mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic, the quintessential American novel. It is and should be required reading, and I hope that someday somebody can equal it with a novel about some of the issues we face currently. I don’t know what that would look like, but I do know that we need one. Thank you, Harper Lee, for writing this one. I will never tire of reading and rereading it.