Book name: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Publisher: J B Lippincott & Co
Format: Print, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Vintage children’s books
Publication Date: 1960
Star Rating: 5/5
Some great books are difficult to categorise. Others rise above any delineation to the point where it simply no longer matters.
To Kill a Mockingbird, which won the Pulitzer Prize and has delighted generations of child and adult readers alike, is such a story.
The book is told through the first-person by Scout (Jean Louise) Finch who is aged five when the book begins and nine when it ends.
It is set in the very early Thirties, a time of economic depression globally but particularly in America.
Scout lives in Maycomb County, Alabama. Her father Atticus is a lawyer. Her older brother Jem is her best friend and playmate.
Her mother died when she was two, so Scout is protected from the occasional melancholy that affects Jem, who can remember her.
Calpurnia, a woman of colour, runs their house and provides the maternal affection that Scout’s father isn’t always confident enough to deliver.
Scout describes him as having one gesture of affection: ruffling their hair.
Scout and Jem are subject to firm but fair discipline, regardless of their father’s self-confessed doubts about his parental abilities.
But like all intelligent and resourceful children they find numerous ways to privately evade these limits.
They spend glorious summers with their friend next door Dill Harris swimming (boys only), playing in their yards, rolling in abandoned tyres until Scout feels sick and getting in harmless mischief.
The trio’s favourite game, which becomes an obsession, is to play at ‘being Boo Radley’.
Boo, or Arthur, Radley has been kept inside the family home near to Scout’s house since he got into trouble years ago. Initially his parents, and more lately his elder brother, have performed this supervision.
Naturally, the mysterious, unseen figure spawns all manner of inventive children’s legends until they are all scared witless.
They are determined in their belief that Boo escapes from the house at night and wanders about the neighbourhood.
The long, hot Alabama summers are interspersed with vividly honest descriptions of the school system at the time that aren’t always very flattering.
The challenges teachers faced are brought out very honestly, including keeping a well-educated child such as Scout amused while at the same time helping children like Walter Cunningham, whose family are too poor to own a single book.
Life becomes harder for Scout when her father agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a person of colour wrongly accused of rape. During the case, the victim’s father, Bob Ewell, develops an undying hatred for the Finches, Judge Taylor and Tom’s wife.
This is driven by his inner recognition that, regardless of the verdict, everyone in Maycomb County knows who was really responsible for Mayella’s injuries.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best known and most satisfying children’s stories of the twentieth century. Told through the eyes of a young girl, the book absolutely encapsulates the ‘innocence with intelligence’ that belongs to children.
The book also offers a great deal to adult readers. The label ‘Southern Gothic’ is often applied to the story, bearing in mind the children’s obsession with monsters and ghosts.
Occasional clues indicate that Scout, as narrator, is telling the story from the vantage point of many years later. This provides a unique ability to understand what, to a child, might not yet be clear.
For instance, there are hints that Dill, who was based on her childhood friend Truman Capote, is innocently more interested in spending time with Jem than with a girl.
There is plenty of irony to go around, as only an adult still able to view the world through the eyes of a child can produce. This is one of my favourite aspects of the book.
The other is its unstinting sincerity, which aligns with the uniquely powerful voice of Scout as she tells the story. An inevitable sadness accompanies the story. Scout as a child believes in all manner of things, but Scout as an adult (and Harper Lee) is able to see them from the adult perspective.
I feel deeply moved every time I read To Kill a Mockingbird. The sincerity and the sadness would be enough to generate that response, but the positive message of the book is one of humanity, equality and compassion.
That, and the vivid portrayal of a rural, southern states way of life that hasn’t vanished entirely, ensures that it continues to engage and delight new generations of readers while also bringing us to confront attitudes to race and prejudice that still endure today.
Thank you for reading my review.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested reading in my review of What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge.
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If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of The Spiral Staircase by Ethel Lina White.