TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee
Word usage is constantly changing. In my lifetime, swell was replaced by cool, which transmuted into far-out, then rad, awesome, hot and the shift goes on and on. I don’t mind the changes. They’re a kick. Do people use kick anymore? As words come into fashion others get lost. One word that has fallen away, but never fails to tickle me is druthers. I often find myself wishing to use it, only to choke it back for fear people will not understand me. No more. Thanks to Harper Lee, I plan to use it the rest of my life just like Atticus Finch.
Jem, she’s old and ill. You can’t hold her responsible for what she says and does. Of course, I’d rather she’d have said it to me than to either of you, but we can’t always have our ’druthers.
Atticus Finch is a man to admire and emulate. He isn’t fearless, but he isn’t afraid to follow his heart.
This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.
Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…
They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions, but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.
I had just entered my teens when I first read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, but the impact of her story was lost on me. During that same period of time I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son. Those books were much more to my liking then. The combination of my raging hormones and the melodramatic flare Stowe and Wright brought to their stories overshadowed To Kill a Mockingbird. Although in reality I was Scout, I desperately wanted to be Eva. Such is the way of teens and literature, which is one of the reasons to reread the classics.
One of the reasons to love Lee’s novel, which escaped me as a teen, is her simplicity. From the accurate description of kids being kids, to the way she conveys the south, she plops the reader into the story and we have no other choice than to connect with the situation—like when Jem and Dill decided to peek in on Boo Radley late one night.
Because nobody could see them at night, because Atticus would be so deep in a book he wouldn’t hear the Kingdom coming, because if Boo Radley killed them they’d miss school instead of vacation, and because it was easier to see inside a dark house in the dark than in the daytime, did I understand?
Of course, we understand. The thought process makes perfect sense. The beauty and simplicity of a child’s point of view is another way Lee is able to drive the injustice of racism home. Once the reader is in the shoes of a child, it’s hard to stomach the complex excuses and narrow-mindedness that adults learn to accept. I found myself so tuned into Scout and Jem’s way of processing the world, even though I knew the story and had seen the movie almost a dozen times, I was as shocked as Jem when the Tom Robinson’s verdict came in.
Another point of admiration comes from Lee’s execution of Scout’s character. Scout shares the events of the 1930’s as an adult looking back, but there is no structural effort as she moves from adult narrator to Scout as a child; no technical means, such as space breaks or use of past perfect to signal the reader of the switch. Lee simply moves from one world to the next by allowing herself to be fully present in the telling of the tale.
When I was almost six and Jem was nearly ten, our summertime boundaries (within calling distance of Calpurnia) were Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house two doors to the north of us and the Radley Place three doors to the south…That was the summer Dill came to us. Early one morning as we were beginning our day’s play in the back yard, Jem and I heard something next door to Miss Rachel Haverford’s collard patch. We went to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy—Miss Rachel’s rat terrier was expecting—instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn’t much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke: “Hey.”
The story unfolds through Scout’s eyes alone. She is a curious, observant child eager to understand the complexities within which the adults of her world exist. Her desire to understand gives her a boldness many people only dream about. In some ways she reminds me of David up against Goliath, especially when she barrels through the gang of men, who want to take care of Tom Robinson in their own way, to reach Atticus.
They were sullen-looking, sleepy-eyed men who seemed unused to late hours. I sought once more for a familiar face, and at the center of the semi-circle I found one.
“Hey, Mr. Cunningham.”…
“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?…I go to school with Walter…He’s in my grade, and he does right well. He’s a good boy, a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?”
In a matter of seconds, Mr. Cunningham orders the men to leave. No arguments, no resistance, the men just shuffle away because a child’s openness disarms them. Lee’s choice to use Scout to end what could have been a horrific event helps underscore the rigid and uncompromising nature of the adults in Maycomb. It also helps raise the reader’s dander throughout the trial. If a child, who only speaks the truth, can soften adult hearts, why can’t the truth from their peers soften their minds? Children are a universal constant of tenderness and forgiveness, and makes Scout the perfect narrator for this story because she naturally shines a spotlight on what is ugly.
To Kill a Mockingbird’s story is, unfortunately, a timeless one. I’d wager it would garner the same success if it were published today rather than in 1960. And yet, I wonder how it would fair with editors. In a time when readers like writers to cut to the chase, I suspect Lee, as a debut novelist, might’ve been asked to trim some of the Maycomb lineage, or start the story later—perhaps with Chapter 9:
“You can just take that back, boy!”
This order, given by me to Cecil Jacobs, was the beginning of a rather thin time for Jem and me. My fists were clenched and I was ready to let fly. Atticus had promised me he would wear me out if he ever heard of me fighting any more: I was far too old and too big for such childish things, and the sooner I learned to hold in, the better off everybody would be. I soon forgot.
I’d like to think not. I’d like to believe the readers of this world still yearn for books of simple truth that unfold in the same gentle way a flower blooms. Harper Lee captured the South with all its idiosyncrasies. Her story seeps into our souls just like the humidity that hangs and presses against us on the dog days of summer. It is an uncomfortable and necessary experience that wakes us up and begs us to reexamine the way we live with others.
To Kill a Mockingbird—a book to read and reread.