This book impressed me with the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of its social message, but I think I would have enjoyed the story more if I hadn’t read it in school.
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.
Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.
Unlike everyone else who has recently read this book (or so it seems), I didn’t pick up To Kill A Mockingbird because of the announcement of Go Set a Watchman. I read it for school–10th grade Honors English–and it is easily my favorite book we’ve read this year.
It’s hard to talk about a book that is so popular, so influential, and so timeless. It feels strange to break it down as I do other books into plot, characters, themes, and writing style. But I’m not sure how else to talk about it, so here goes.
I loved Scout. I connected to her on many levels–she is an endearing child, her innocence and optimism make the book what it is today, and her simple rejection of Southern femininity speaks across decades to my feminist side. Rarely do I pick up books with young protagonists, mainly because I feel I’ve outgrown middle grade, and it was a pleasure to read a book whose themes were adult and whose plot pulled no punches, narrated by an elementary-school age child who made the whole book bearable. I feel like authors today don’t break the rules governing the relationship between the age of a protagonist and the content of the plot as often, and I wish they did. It is wonderful to read about young, innocent, energetic protagonists who get in fistfights and make up “haunted” houses.
And then there’s Atticus. He is amazing. Many people in my class had trouble with his somewhat distant relationship with his children, but I understood and loved it from the beginning. He couldn’t have been the lawyer or righteous character that he was if he was a super hands-on father, but that isn’t to say that he was a bad father. He was actually the best father that Jem and Scout could hope for–teaching them lessons so subtely that they followed them instead of rebelling against them. This, incidentally, also made sure that the reader didn’t want to strangle Atticus for being “preachy,” something I was afraid would happen if Harper Lee had not been such a gifted storyteller. Atticus’s relationship with guns was one of the most powerful parts of the book for me (and not just because it is where the title came from). The scene where he shoots the dog was one of the most dramatic and thought-provoking scenes in the book, and I know that in “X” amount of years it will be one of the moments that stays with me.
The rest of the characters in Maycomb were simple but alive. Though there are tons of side characters, each one of them is memorable and well characterized. Miss Maudie was one of my favorites; I loved the solidarity we got to see with Atticus and her sweet relationship with the children. Miss Stephanie Crawford and Aunt Alexandra drove me crazy, but in a good way–the story would not have been believable without their deeply Southern input. Jem and Dill, honestly, were some of my least favorite characters. I liked them, and they obviously contributed to the story, but their treatment of Scout bothered me, and I just never connected to them the way I did other characters. Calpurnia, on the other hand, was one of my favorites.
On to the plot of this book. It is a complex plot, not the kind of thing that can be described with any other term than “growing up.” The beginning’s focus on Boo Radely did a good job establishing a basis for Maycomb and Scout, though I preferred the scenes that focused more on Scout’s personal life than the Boo Radely “myth.”
Of course, the trial was the most powerful portion of the plot in terms of social commentary. I admire that Harper Lee didn’t shy away from making it a rape case, and that she was willing to make the truth of the case as “scandalous” as it would have been during the 30’s (when it is set) and also the 60’s (when it was published). Tom Robinson’s plight got to me, as well as the horrible position Mayella was in. The hatred I feel for Bob Ewell surprised even myself–I am extremely emotionally invested in this book. Atticus came into the spotlight and validated the hero-worship that comes his way. And Scout was simultaneously forced to grow up and strengthened by her youthful innocence.
The repercussions of the trial were important, but it was clear to me that the book was winding down. The attack scene, which I guess functions as a climax, felt like it was in the falling action portion of the plot, and ended up being lost a bit for me. Still, I loved that Harper Lee brought Boo Radley back, just to validate the beginning of the book and to show Scout’s growth. I was genuinely proud of Scout in the last pages of the book.
I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I hadn’t read it in school. Not because of annotating it or of beating it to death with class discussions, but because of how slow we read it. The plot felt very disjointed as we read it, chapter by chapter, with shot breaks between sections of the plot. I’d like to reread it at some point, on my own time, to really absorb the story as a whole. I think the plot would seem more continuous, and I would enjoy the impact of the story more fully.