‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee is an American classic. Set in the deep south in the fictional town of Maycomb in the 1930s, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel is narrated by eight year old Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch. Scout lives with her older brother Jeremy ‘Jem’ Finch and father Atticus Finch. Scout is a tomboy who enjoys roughing it up with Jem and together they befriend Dill, who lives with his aunt next door during summer. Their summers consist of enacting stories, climbing trees, and trying to entice the elusive Boo Radley to come out of his house. Scout and Jem live a pretty good life in sleepy old Maycomb. Scout has the usual problems with bullies, the usual sibling rivalry with Jem and hates school because she apparently has learnt too much prior to starting school, arguments with her aunty because she is not ‘ladylike’ enough and has plans with Dill to marry him when they are both of age.
Everything is pretty routine for Scout and Jem until they find out that Atticus is defending a black man, Tom Robinson who has been accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell. In the racist and narrow-minded society of the 30s, Atticus is seen by majority of the townsfolk as a traitor. For them, it’s one thing to be assigned to defend a black man but it’s a totally different thing to actually make an effort to defend him. And Scout and Jem are forced to face the harsh reality of society. Jem being slightly older, has formed his views. Scout, on the other hand, is still trying to gather information to make up her mind. She doesn’t understand why her father has to defend a black man. She doesn’t understand the manner in which society is reacting to him. She doesn’t understand why some people are hypocritical (even if she doesn’t use the word ‘hypocrisy’).
Despite Atticus’ efforts and despite clearly casting reasonable doubt, the all white male jury convicts Tom Robinson. And what follows is anger and incredulity on Jem’s part and confusion on Scout’s. And through them, a greater insight into the kind of society they live in. The racist and hypocritical nature of majority of the population. The appalling injustice faced by the blacks.
This one question she poses about her teacher to Jem pretty much sums up all seems muddled in her head:
Miss Gates is a nice lady, ain’t she?
‘Why sure,’ said Jem ‘I liked her when I was in her room.’
‘She hates Hitler a lot…’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treatin’ the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? I mean, have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?’
‘Gracious no, Scout. What’s eatin’ you?’
‘Well, coming out of the court-house that night Miss Gates was – she was goin’ down the steps in front of us…she was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home -?’
It’s a coming-of-age story and a literary classic. In some ways, you can also see that things have changed to a certain extent. I’m sure many of you must have read this book at some stage in your lives. If you haven’t, I advise you to read it as soon as possible! It’s definitely one of those must-read books in your lifetime. Jasper Jones has shades of this book but in an Australian context with a few other issues added.