Sunday, October 9, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I believe I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school or college, and since that time the iconic images of the movie with Gregory Peck have replaced my memories of the book.

My book group chose Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee as its October book, and I thought my reading would be enriched by rereading the great classic that rocketed Harper Lee to fame...especially since last week was Banned Books Week (and To Kill a Mockingbird is always on those lists).

Now that I'm older and wiser, I have a greater understanding for how remarkable this book is. First of all, the fact that it was Harper Lee's first novel (and only one, as it turns out). Second, the fact that Lee grew up in a small, insular southern town and had such vision and empathy for the underprivileged. As most people know, many of the characters are based on her own life...she based Scout on herself, Dill on her best friend Truman Capote, and Atticus on her own father. Many of the minor characters, too, are based on people she knew in small-town Monroeville, Alabama.

After reading The Help so recently, I couldn't help but compare the two novels...both are Southern stories told from the white perspective, although Mockingbird was based in the 1930s rather than the 1960s. In spite of the 30-year time difference, the incidents and environment didn't seem all that different. A black man in Alabama wouldn't have gotten a fair trial in the 1960s either, as we know. Somehow, I found To Kill a Mockingbird so much richer and genuine than The Help...perhaps because Kathryn Stockett was trying to write a story in the viewpoint of a white person, yet came off as condescending and one-dimensional (certainly not her intention). As Lee writes in Scout's childish viewpoint, it's clear that she's naive and is learning the ways of the world.
The film Scout and Atticus
I love Scout's character, in particular because she was such a great feminist at such an unlikely age and place. She simply did not get why girls had to be all prissy and proper when it was more fun to climb trees, read books, and play outside. To Kill a Mockingbird is a great novel on so many levels: it's a loving portrait of the American South, in spite of its evil side. It's a story of deep childhood friendship and sibling relationships, and it's a tale of justice, wisdom, and acceptance of people who are different from ourselves.

One thing that stood out to me: early on, Scout describes the fact that she has no mother, and says "Our mother died when I was two, so I never felt her absence." Harper Lee had a strained relationship with her own mother, partly because she didn't fit the feminine archetype and partly because her mother suffered from what appeared to be mental illness (possibly bipolar). To cut the mother out of the story was a convenient choice, and to say that she never felt her absence because she died when Scout was two is an interesting (and unrealistic) thought. I'm not sure whether Lee honestly did not think that this kind of death would not have an impact on a child, or whether she was conveying Scout's ignorance. At any rate, this seemed off to me. Clearly, the family's African-American maid, Calipurnia, filled that motherhood hole for Scout and Jem, and fortunately they had a wise, loving, and attentive father.
Scout, Jem, and Boo (movie)
Knowing that Lee's mother suffered from mental illness, it makes me view the character of Boo Radley differently as well. Perhaps Lee was trying to portray mental illness in a sympathetic way because of what her own mother experienced?

I will most likely have more observations about this novel as I make my way through Mockingbird. I greatly enjoyed my rereading of this classic, and now I want to see the movie again!


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  2. I LOVE To Kill a Mockingbird! I read it a few years ago, but got rid of my mass market paperback. The 50th anniversary edition has a gorgeous cover... may have to pick up another copy soon!

    russel of Hunting Alaska