This is a post in my 50 Nifty series, in which I’m reading through 50 books that embody each of the 50 United States. Find out why I’m doing this and which books I’m reading when (so you can read along) by checking out my first 50Nifty post, or else browse all 50Nifty posts by clicking here!
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
I always figured I’d already read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at some point in my life, but as soon as I started it last week I realized that my memories of the story are only from the movie or references in pop culture, so I was excited to finally work through the text. I devoured this story in just a few days and would highly recommend it, so if you’re the only other person in the country who has not yet read this classic (or at least seen the movie), please go do it right now and then come back and finish this post. (Seriously, please do that, because there are some spoilers ahead.)
The story takes place in rural Alabama and many of the stereotypes of small-town life in the South are present, from Lane cake to ladies’ societies. The racial tensions are characteristically high and play an obvious role in the everyday lives of the townspeople, although the children in the story seem to often have more pressing concerns. From Lee’s descriptions of Maycomb, I felt like I would recognize the Finches’ neighborhood if I saw it today and can almost imagine the secret hole in the tree by the fence and other tiny details from the book. I have not spent much time in Alabama (besides driving through a couple of times), but I do think this story is richer for having taken place in Alabama, and the authenticity of the place is evident in large part because Harper Lee grew up in that region, knows it well, and describes it even better.
If you had asked me what this book was about before I began, I’d have described Maycomb attorney Atticus Finch defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, and the drama that that causes in the small Alabama town. I’d have explained that it was a “coming of age” story for Scout, who is the narrator and Atticus’s young daughter, and I’d have told you it was a tale of racial injustice. But while all of that is true and important, after reading it I’d now argue that it is more widely about one’s fear of the unknown and his or her treatment of “the other.”
In what I think is a brilliant move by Lee, the well-known story of the trial is sandwiched within a larger framework of Scout and her companions’ goal of getting the recluse “Boo” (Mr. Arthur) Radley to come out of his house. While some readers will write off this story as mere subplot, it seems from the structure of the novel and the frequent reminders of the kids’ quest that Lee intends for it to inform the whole book. Boo Radley is the neighborhood mystery, and as I remember from my own childhood, those neighborhood mysteries are both intriguing and scary, keeping kids engaged for hours and prompting many a rumor. More often than not, though, those scary mysteries end up turning into nice people (Home Alone comes to mind here, and Home Alone 2, actually), but the reason Lee’s use of this story is brilliant is because it allows us as readers to engage with the sandwiched story of the trial not only in terms of the racial issues and prejudices surrounding it, but also in terms of being afraid of that with which we are unfamiliar.
To counteract that fear of the unknown, Atticus tells Scout early in the story, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” and throughout the novel we read of Scout’s continued attempts to take seriously that advice. She mentions several instances in which she really does try to understand situations from another person’s point of view, from her brother Jeb going through his own trials of adolescence to the loneliness of Mayella Ewell (the supposed victim of Tom Robinson), to Boo Radley himself as he watched over the neighborhood, and by doing so she often better understands the individuals, growing up in the process.
This growing up in general, and a loss of innocence more specifically, is another theme throughout the book, as is evidenced by the title itself. The titular phrase is first mentioned when Scout and Jeb get rifles as a gift from their uncle, but Atticus admonishes them that while they may shoot as many bluejays as they want, “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” This warning is interpreted by their neighbor Maudie, who explains that mockingbirds don’t do anything but sing; that is, they don’t harm anybody, so it’d be a sin to harm them. Because of this, many readers decide that the title To Kill a Mockingbird is a reference to Tom Robinson, whose innocence is all but demonstrated in the trial, but who is killed anyway, an obvious sin in the eyes of the readers. This is one fitting explanation, of course, but near the end of the book, the phrase recurs once more. In the discussion following the decision to explain Mr. Ewell’s death as self inflicted rather than bring Boo Radley to trial over it, Scout muses that bringing him to trial would be like killing a mockingbird, a comment which both demonstrates her growth throughout the novel as well as her better understanding of Boo’s reclusive but protective personality. Scout using the title line to describe Boo also further lends credence to the idea that the Boo storyline is of utmost importance in the novel.
In the end, it seems that the conclusion that Scout and Atticus come to at the end of the book is a good summary of humanity: after the two of them read a story about a misunderstood protagonist, Scout argues, “He was real nice” and Atticus replies, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” With that in mind, even if you have read this book (that means you, America!), I’d argue that it merits another visit!