So after my summer in Prague and eastern Europe the 100 book project is back on track, well really it’s terribly behind, but the point is I’m reading and reviewing once more. The book I’m going to be looking at in this review is Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird.
Level of recommendation: High
Favourite Line/Section: “As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men everyday of your life but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash” – Attitcus to Jem
Quick Review: A well thought out novel that examines the concepts of family traditions, town expectations, racial discrimination, the desire to fight for whats right, the pain of injustice and the uneasy satisfaction of retribution. Its a novel that is both heartwarming because of Scout’s narration/character/the family interaction and terrifying because of the questions it raises about society.
Much Longer Review: To Kill a Mockingbird is an American novel by Harper Lee. Published in 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird was Lee’s only published novel. Set in Alabama in the 1930’s the tale is told in first person through the eyes of Scout Finch, a little girl who has been raised by her lawyer father Atticus Finch along with her older brother Jem.
The first part of the novel focuses on establishing a vivid picture of life in Maycomb county through the eyes of Scout. We are introduced to the main players in town and to the dynamics within the family. Lee uses southern dialect and established customs to create a realistic portrait of a southern community. As the story evolves, we, along with Scout, learn more about Atticus and his nature, such as he used to be the deadshot of Maycomb county. This slow reveal is a magnificent choice by Lee as it further establishes Scout child voice (as children often are the last to know things and have a tendency to piece things together through bits of conversation they weren’t supposed to hear).
But the main action of this novel is the trial of Tom Robinson. Atticus is Tom’s defense lawyer. Immediately the children begin be on the receiving ends of insults from other children in the community. They’re told their father is brining shame on the family by being a ‘nigger-lover’ and again Scout’s childhood is played upon as she does not understand why its a bad thing but she knows its an insult by the way people say it.
Throughout the build up to the trial Jem, grows older and absorbs more information whereas Scout simply hears things here and there and tries her best to understand what they mean such as asking Cal, their African American housekeeper what rape is. Throughout the build up to the trial the themes of childhood, innocence, race, gender and right vs. wrong are all played upon.
On the build up to the trial there are multiple instances when Scout speaks the truths the adults are afraid to say, Jem and Scout also manage to stop a mob from attacking their father and Tom in jail by reminding the angry mob that they all know each other. Scout asks one of the mob’s members about his son and the man’s resolve crumbles, since a child has reminded them that they all know each other and claim to like each other outside of the trail.
As the trail unfolds Lee builds up the racial tension in the community and shows off Atticus’ lawyer skills and it comes out during the trail that its far more likely that the accusers—Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell, the town drunk—are lying. It also becomes clear that the friendless Mayella was making sexual advances towards Tom and her father caught her and beat her.
Scout and Jem watch the trail from the colored balcony as their father doesn’t want them present. The children are sure Tom will be found innocent yet the racist tendencies of the community win out and Tom is found guilty, despite Atticus doing an incredible job at showing innocence.
This is where the magic of the book comes into play, at least for me, because as a reader you are sure that Tom will be found innocent too but Lee decides to not give Tom a happy ending and in turn remind us that unfortunately in this world prejudice, fear, judgement and disappointment runs rampant. Lee then does an excellent job of showing each character processes the result of the trail differently.
After the aftermath of the trial Tom Robinson is shot as he is trying to escape from jail and the reader can’t help but feel as though a good man has died. The family the wrestles with Tom’s death and attempts to get back to normal life, but Bob Ewell will not let the situation go.
He threatens the family until finally a confrontation between Jem, Scout and Bob ends in Bob Ewell’s death. It appears that Jem fought with Bob and Bob fell on his own knife. Atticus insists Jem owns up to his actions but the Sheriff insists it was an accident. All of a sudden Jem has grown up and in a odd circle of karma type situation the reader finds themselves thinking Bob Ewell got what he deserved.
The strengths of this novel are numerous including the lovable, innocent and snarky voice of Scout as the narrator, the believable family dynamics Lee is able to create, the slow reveal of characters past, such as Atticus being the deadshot of Maycomb county before his children were born, and the vivid descriptions she gives of Maycomb that makes the reader feel as though they were living in the Alabama town.
Yet the real strength of this novel is the way Lee places with expectations, whats right/wrong and the concept of retribution, we expect people to do the right thing but they don’t and an innocent man dies. We expect Atticus to have some kind of grand change in character after he loses the trail but he doesn’t.
Throughout the novel Scout is constantly questioning what is wrong and what is wrong, she is told many different things by adults but ultimately her childhood conscious tells the truth. Lastly Lee, like in real life, doesn’t give us a picture perfect end. She gives us the vengeance we wanted on Bob Ewell’s character but Tom Robinson still dies and Jem know has to live with the knowledge that he killed a man. Lee’s ending to this novel is a masterpiece in my mind because its tattered, leaves us questioning and feeling both relief and pain at the same time. Not many endings give us that mix of emotions.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel I highly recommend for anyone, its pace is lovely, the dialogue is entertaining yet painfully honest and the plot is one of those narrative that will make you question your own moral code and what is means to be a human with the capability of judgement, loving, causing pain and doing nothing in the presence of evil.
If you haven’t read this American classic yet, be sure you do.