Guess who had a birthday today?
The answer is one of the greatest American novels ever written–and by far my favorite. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was 50 years old today.
There are a hundred different write-ups online where you can read about how influential this book was on race relations in America. Here’s a good one. I don’t want to minimize the importance of that element of the book–certainly every time I read it (such as the hour I got sucked into it tonight) I am awed by how clearly and accurately Lee portrayed the way ignorance and fear begets hate, and how goodness and honesty are employed to fight it. Think of the humanity on display in the scene where Scout bursts into the circle of men who are, unbeknownst to her, about to forcibly remove her father from outside the jailhouse so that they can lynch his client, Tom Robinson, before his trial. She recognizes one of the men as the father of one of her school classmates and tries to make conversation with him, “Tell Walter hey for me,” she says, and the man is so shamed that the crowd disperses. Of course, reality is hit and miss, and the men don’t miss their opportunity to defeat Tom later via the legal system.
The book recognizes that humanity has as much darkness in it as light, and the ambiguous situations that arise in life because of it. I love that, and I also continue to be charmed by the book’s paragon of integrity and quiet intelligence, Atticus Finch. But what I really think is special and wonderful about To Kill a Mockingbird–what you don’t see very often at all in “important” books–is the tone. It’s narrated by Scout Finch, who ages from about five years old to about ten or eleven. She’s bright but baffled by the world around her, and through her point of view, readers get everything unvarnished: the best, the worst, the most mundane. And she’s hilarious all the way through.
Jem was twelve. He was difficult to live with, inconsistent, moody. His appetite was appalling, and he told me so many times to stop pestering him I consulted Atticus: “Reckon he’s got a tapeworm?” Atticus said no, Jem was growing. I must be patient with him and disturb him as little as possible.
Through Scout, we get to examine these tough issues, these truths both horrible and beautiful, and keep our innocence. Lee created one of the most singularly charming narrative voices in all of literature, and it’s really quite amazing.
I understand that most people read this book around the eighth or ninth grade. If you haven’t read it since then, I highly recommend a revisit.