To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird is the Pulitzer prize winning novel by Nelle Harper Lee published in 1961. Having finally read it, finally, I see why it is a classic and I consider it to be a work of genius. It is sophisticated and nuanced in theme and in the telling, despite its down-home, small town setting. On the whole, I was say it is what The Andy Griffith Show would have been had it honestly portrayed the subject of racism in Mayberry--and if Sheriff Taylor had questioned the legal system, and if Opie had precociously questioned Sheriff Taylor, and if Aunt Bea had been black.

The story is set in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama in 1935. It is told completely from the point-of-view of eight year-old, Jean Louise Finch (also known as "Scout") who is the daughter of fifty-year old widower and lawyer, Atticus Finch.  The first half of the book is pretty much like episodic TV, with events happening to Scout, her brother Jem, and their friends against the Mayberry-like setting. But Mayberry was never like Maycomb in the open racism of its citizens. In the first half of the book, this racism is very well established by Ms Lee through liberal use of the "N-word."

...if anybody sees a white n----r around, that's the one..and next time he won't aim high, be it dog, n----r, or--

...but now he's turned out to be a n----r-lover we'll never be able to walk the streets of Maycomb again.

...but around here once you have a drop of Negro blood, that makes you all black.

And so forth. The common hatred for black people in Maycomb and the assumed attitude that black people are inferior to whites is familiar to me, having grown up in the US deep south in the 1960s. I can attest that the picture Ms Lee paints is realistic for that time. I'm sure the same attitudes exist today, but mostly underground.

It is in this setting that the story's drama unfolds when a young black man, Tom Robinson, is accused of raping a white woman. Atticus Finch is assigned by the judge to defend Robinson. Atticus is very progressively-minded in contrast to those around him and he is very aware of that. He knows that taking the case and actually trying to defend Robinson will bring problems for himself and his children. Wanting to set the right moral example for his kids, Atticus does defend Robinson to the best of his ability, and the problems he expected do arise.

Fans of To Kill a Mockingbird are drawn to the engaging characters in it, especially the kids, Scout and Jem. Ms Lee shows them moving through their world, dealing with school and adults, having school-yard fights, being obsessed with their reclusive neighbor, fearing "haints" and mad dogs. This is the "episodic" part but it includes some brilliant observations on southern, small town life that underscores the uglier racism.

For example, the inadequacy of the education system that actually retards the development of precocious children. Scout's view of her first years in elementary school is: I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something.

And the southern obsession with fundamentalist Protestant religion that tolerates only conformity (mirroring the intolerance for blacks) prompts Scout to make an observation on some church people's condemnation of a neighbor for being more concerned with caring for her garden than for Bible study:

My confidence in pulpit Gospel lessened at the vision of Miss Maudie stewing forever in various Protestant hells.

But the central conflict in the story is the Robinson trial and its anticlimax. In that telling, Ms Lee expresses an interesting lack of confidence in the impartial rule-of-law. In Atticus' summation to the jury, he extolls, eloquently, the virtue of a court system as the only place in society where men are truly equal: this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.

But he follows with a qualification:

A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only is only as sound as the men who make it up.

We see later that Atticus has no confidence that the jury will do the right thing, because of the attitudes of the men who make it up. And thus is the book's indictment of US society. It's also, I think, what made it a Pulitzer winner.

But even more interesting to me, was the story's attitude towards the law in the anticlimax. I don't do spoilers, so I'll just say that this lack of confidence in the court system for finding justice is extended when some characters circumvent it to protect an innocent. There is a certain amount of judgementalness in this that might seem hypocritical, and indeed, the characters (especially Atticus) wrestle with it. But they make their choices and deciding the moral rightness of their actions is, I think, an exercise left to the reader.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic piece of literature greatly beloved by readers for good reason. It is beautifully written with an intimate feel for its characters and appreciation for the nuances of life, especially where big issues are concerned.

This book is Mayberry with a sharp edge.