thoughts on books: to kill a mockingbird

From the first time I read it at about age 10, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee has been one of my favorite books and I have given it a 5/5. What makes this book special to me is getting to know Scout and the relationship between Scout and Atticus. It’s like visiting an old friend. Yet, this book has come under criticism now because of how it deals with racism. I’m of mixed feelings about some of the criticism. It would be interesting to reread it now after the recent focus on systemic racism and view it from a different perspective.

On the most personal level, the book is about a young girl who is trying to understand the world around her. Scout is curious and intelligent, she is adventurous and fun and interesting. She is scared and brave at the same time. I identified with Scout. I grew up in a small town and in a fairly rural area. There wasn’t a lot to do so the neighborhood children played outside together – tag, hide and seek, hopscotch, jump rope, kick the can and other random games. We didn’t have a lot of direct supervision but we had a lot of fun, like Scout, her brother Jem and friend Dill. Scout may have grown up in the South and I in the North, but we shared some aspects of childhood. I had three older brothers who were quite a bit older than Jem was to Scout and I had lost a parent at a young age – in my case, my father.

Atticus is a lawyer who focuses on giving his children a safe home, a sense of right and wrong, and soft place to fall. In To Kill a Mockingbird, he is a good person who takes on injustice. As I understand it, Go Set a Watchman (which some say is a sequel, some say first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird) portrays Atticus as a more flawed character. It’s funny, usually I like to see characters in their full complexity, but in this case I have no desire to see Atticus as something other than a good person who takes on injustice. I suspect this has more to do with my identification with Scout and, by extension, with Atticus. Having lost my real father at a young age, I’m not prepared to lose a literary father as well. Or maybe I don’t want to see a hero fall – there is a lot of negativity in the world these days so preserving positive where ever possible is a good thing.

The other characters in To Kill a Mockingbird are less well-drawn – more like acquaintances. In a small book, it might have been tempting to create archetypes that are representative rather than individual characters who feel real, but in my opinion, the book manages to create compelling “real” acquaintances. Jem is Scout’s big brother, confidante, and playmate. He is often seen (by Scout) as somewhere between a kid and an adult. In some ways, Scout is helped in processing the world by watching Jem – he understands the Boo Radley and Tom Robinson situations from a more mature-but-still-not-adult perspective.

Calpurnia cooks for the Finch family, takes care of Scout and Jem, and helps teach them the importance of empathy. Yet, we know little about her or her life experiences. The lack of detail about her life is one critique of the book – she is one of the more prominent black characters but is written superficially. Knowing more about her would also provide more information about the black community. On the other hand, it is not surprising that we don’t know more about her. Scout would probably not know about Calpurnia’s life outside of work because she’s a young child. Children tend to focus on what is happening to them. Would there would be more information provided about the cook/housekeeper/caregiver if she was white? I don’t think so. In addition, I’m guessing Calpurnia would not share too much with the Finches, particularly with Scout and Jem. A parallel story about Calpurnia and a daughter the same age as Scout would be fascinating – seeing how two young girls process similar information.

Other characters become part of Scout’s world. Dill is a young boy visiting relatives – he is us (the readers) dropping into town and trying to figure out what is going on. He also pushes Scout and Jem out of their comfort zone to find out about their mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley. Boo is an enigma, who emerges from his troubled world to save Scout and Jem from harm. There are so many rumors around town about Boo that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction, as it were. What we do know is that he feels warmth and affection for Jem and Scout – he gives them gifts, watches over them, and saves their lives. Tom Robinson is a noble man whose dignity and compassion are beautiful, especially as he experiences so much that is ugly. He tries to help Mayella but is trapped in a horrible set of circumstances in which he is accused of rape. Tom represents the unfairness of trying to do good but ending up being punished. Mayella Ewell is a both a victim and a perpetrator of injustice. Her life was set from the day she was born as the oldest daughter in a family with a cruel father. She falsely accuses Tom Robinson but she herself is damaged and lives without much hope of a better life. Her father Bob Ewell is the embodiment of all that is ugly in society – he is coarse, racist, and vulgar. He abuses and intimidates.

The book’s broader themes are still with us – systemic racism, economic and social inequality, abuse, and injustice. These themes are seen in different ways throughout the book. Tom Robinson’s rape conviction even though he was proven to be innocent of the crime, the treatment of Boo Radley, the abuse that Mayella Ewell has likely experienced, and the violence and anger of Bob Ewell resonate with us today. We see it in the anger that seems to engulf us now and we read it in the news reports of hate and violence.

The book also points to the need for good people to act, the importance of doing what is right and just and fair, and the importance of standing together against hate and violence. In one of my Jeopardy! posts I mention that fairness is one of those fundamental feelings – I remember first reading about Tom Robinson’s conviction and saying aloud, “it’s not fair”. There is something very basic and accessible about this story – fundamental truths that can touch the heart and conscience. This accessibility is mentioned by many teachers as a positive aspect of the book – children can relate to it.

Some recent reviews of the book point to its limitations in addressing the broader themes and point to racist parts of the book. To some extent, these are fair points, but in other respects I disagree. I completely agree that this is not a sophisticated book about racism and does not go far enough in giving us insight into the lives of the black characters, particularly Tom and Calpurnia. Having those insights would provide a more richly nuanced story and greater sense of of the relationships between the races at the time. In addition, I have seen references to Boo being autistic or having a mental health condition, the neighbor’s addiction, and Tom’s disability as other themes that were not fully explored and would have added to the story. The reality is the book was written in the mid-1950s and published in 1960, not in 2021 – had it been written today, it probably would have covered some of this ground.

My challenge with the criticism is that the book is not “about” racism or any of the other broader themes, though the racism component of the story is arguably the most memorable. I think it’s important to remember that the book recounts memories of a white child who starts the book at age 6 and is probably about 9 or 10 when it ends. She is learning about the world around her and racism is part of that. Other than Calpurnia, Scout does not really know other black people and she does not really know about Calpurnia’s life away from the Finch household. She could not have a sophisticated understanding of the impact of systemic racism or poverty or social inequality – to give her that understanding would have been inauthentic. Instead, she sees a man convicted of a crime he did not commit and understands that it is fundamentally unfair. That this unfairness is due to racism, which is pervasive, is a lesson learned for Scout, Jem, and perhaps the reader. The importance of her father standing up for a black man, against the community mores, is another lesson.

To me, one of the most successful aspects of the book is that Scout is shown to be a child trying to understand what is going on. She sees inequity on a personal level in the actions of her community against Tom Robinson, in her father’s role in defending Tom, and through the poverty experienced by the Cunninghams and the Ewells. Life is not all pleasant for many people of Maycomb. This story pulls together the elements we encounter in life – good and bad. Seeing life through the eyes of children (both Scout and Jem) provides a view of events not obscured by adult cynicism or disappointment or judgment. It is simple and straightforward. It is more about family, community, and learning about life than it is a treatise on systemic racism and social-economic inequality. The book would need a different voice to take on these issues in a comprehensive way, which would not match the rest of the story. However, it would be possible to add some of those dimensions using the older narrator and Atticus to give voice to the unseen parts of the story. Would this change be beneficial or cumbersome? It could go either way, depending upon how it was handled.

Another criticism of the book is the “white savior” aspect, though I’m not sure this plays out. The book is set in the 1930s in an Alabama town, so it is unlikely that there would be a black attorney to represent Tom Robinson. Perhaps the character of Tom could have been a poor white man falsely accused of rape to remove the race focus entirely, but this would deny us the opportunity to meet Tom and see the racial disparity of the time. Atticus didn’t save Tom. Atticus did a job he was asked to do – defend a black man – and lost. I also don’t think that we can discount the fact that we see actions taken by white people because the story is from the perspective of a white child living in a segregated town and she interacts mainly with white people. Yes, the narrator is an older Scout, so some perspective could be added, but the memories being recounted are those of a young Scout whose world is limited.

Perhaps it is more a reflection of my age and experiences growing up in a largely white village/county/region, but this book helped me learn about the injustice, hatred and violence of racism – just as it helped Scout and Jem. Seeing children mature into a more nuanced view of the world in which they understand that things may not be quite so simple and straightforward is a lesson for the reader as well for the characters. There are layers and complexities in life, but there are also basic and simple components. Finding ways to marry the simple and the complex presents a challenge to us all. If we succeed, we are able to have an enriched view of life and better understanding of people. If we do not succeed, we may become narrow-minded, focused on our own “layer” of life, or unable to understand how others live.

In 2013 when I last read this book, it still engaged me, gave me hope for a future where we can learn about each other, and gave me access to a different world. Could it have gone further to hit home the impact of inequity? Yes. Should it have gone further? Maybe. Perhaps I need to read it again. Happy to hear your thoughts.

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