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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

11 Apr

If you missed this past weekend’s big event, it was the 50th anniversary of the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird. And in her second guest post, Izzy Long will be giving us a review of this classic American book. This book is a personal favorite of mine (also, Atticus Finch is my favorite literary crush), and hopefully, if you haven’t read it, it’ll be a new favorite for you too.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful story set in 1950s Alabama in Deep South America, where clear lines are drawn between white and black communities. Themes of prejudice and racism run throughout the plot, along with issues of class, loneliness, courage and a growing understanding of other people’s points of view. It is told through the eyes of seven-year-old Scout; the spirited daughter of lawyer, Atticus Finch, who takes on the defence of an innocent black labourer accused of raping a white girl.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Published: 1960

Quick read? While the plot ticks by at a lively rate, the underlying themes deserve proper concentration and time spent unravelling what the author wanted to get across to her readers. Take the time to understand the novel’s powerful messages.

Difficulty: The plot is action-packed with more than one tense moment, yet it is fairly straightforward and easy to read. The themes of prejudice, racism, loneliness and the loss of innocence add a deeper element that is well worth exploring.

Synopsis: The story follows town lawyer, Atticus Finch and his children: ten-year-old Jem and seven-year-old Jean-Louise (Scout) who live in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. The central plot of the novel is when Atticus defends a black man, Tom Robinson against the charge of raping a young white girl.

Scout tells the story from her point of view, starting from when she and her brother, Jem, together with their friend Dill, become interested in the myth of local recluse Boo Radley during their school summer holidays. Although scared of Boo, Dill encourages the others to join him in trying to make him come out of his imposing house.

Back at school once again, Scout finds herself missing the freedom granted to her over the summer by her father. As she and Jem walk home past Boo Radley’s house one afternoon, they discover gifts left apparently for them in the knothole of a tree. They try to write Boo a note of thanks, but are stopped by Atticus who urges them to consider Boo’s feelings and to think of things from another person’s point of view.

A year later, Atticus has taken on the defence of Tom Robinson, a black labourer accused of raping a white girl. Scout is teased about this at school, but her admiration for her father returns when he shoots a dangerous mad dog in the street with just one shot. Later, Atticus leaves town on business and his stern sister, Alexandra comes to look after the children. Their black nursemaid, Calpurnia takes the children to her black church, but when Alexandra finds out, she bans them from visiting Calpurnia again.

When Atticus returns to Maycomb, a group of local men try to persuade him outside the jail to drop Tom’s defence on the eve of his trial. As more men turn up, intending to lynch Tom, things start to turn nasty, Scout unwittingly diffuses the situation by recognising one of the men as the father of her school friend and asking innocently after his son.

Tom’s trial begins, with the whole town present in the courthouse. As Atticus’ cross examination gets underway, it becomes clear that the girl, and her father, Bob Ewell, are lying and that Tom is innocent. Despite that, he is found guilty by the all-white jury. After the trial, Bob Ewell, knowing that he was badly shown up by Atticus, spits at him, vowing revenge. Later, the news comes that Tom was shot dead by guards as he tried to escape prison.

Back at school, Scout is taught about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, and cannot understand how her fellow townspeople cannot connect that with the racism present in the town. Walking home from a Hallowe’en pageant a few weeks later, Scout and Jem realise they are being followed. Someone tries to squash Scout inside her padded fancy dress costume and breaks Jem’s arm. The children manage to escape and get safely home, thanks to a mystery rescuer dressed in dark clothing. Bob Ewell is found dead with a kitchen knife in his ribs.

At home, Scout tells her story. Slowly, she realises that the person who helped her and Jem must have been Boo Radley, who is now standing shyly in the corner of the room. Atticus realises that Boo must have killed Bob Ewell, but persuades the townspeople to say that Ewell fell on the knife himself to protect the reclusive Boo. Scout leads Boo home, but she never sees him again after that. She finally realises what life must be like for him, putting herself in his shoes and thinking for the first time from other people’s points of view as Atticus had once urged her to do.

Why this book? Harper Lee chose the title of her book as a metaphor for human justice. Mockingbirds do no harm to anyone, so it could be said to be a very great sin to kill one. The long-held attitudes and prejudice held by the various characters in Maycomb are challenged as the plot unfolds, leading to a fascinating exploration of human courage. Racial tensions and prejudices still exist to this day, making To Kill a Mockingbird as relevant to the twenty-first century as it was when it was published in 1960.

Some neat-o facts:

Harper Lee (or perhaps Scout?), all grown up.

  • This was Harper Lee’s first and only book, which won the much-coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1961. It was adapted into both a stage play and a film, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout.
  • The plot was constructed in the context of US race relations, following a long period of slavery, when black people were considered as much of a commodity as USA parcels by the white community. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1865, black people were still, by and large, powerless as white people fought to retain their advantages through the difficult period of the Great Depression and beyond, often through segregation and injustice.

If you like this, try: ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker, about a young African American woman living in rural Georgia in the 1930s. Or ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ – the 1969 autobiography of black writer and poet, Maya Angelou.

Review by Izzy Long. She is a freelance writer, and she can be contacted here.