This was a tricky one for me; I had to cheat a little because I read all the books I was asked to in school. So I picked a book another class did: Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (I think my class was reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ at the time). I started this one knowing nothing about the story, and only that it is a favourite of some of my friends. This book is quite different from the ones I’ve previously read for the challenge: it’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, an honest to goodness classic, and it moved me to tears.
I found it a really hard book to get into, in fact, I put it down for a month after my first attempt to read it. The style of writing was a kind of singsong narration; I felt like I was being read to, rather than reading the book, with the reader interjecting with little asides and snippets of information instead of getting to the point. It was maddening, at first, but then it grew on me. Rereading those first few paragraphs I don’t feel any frustration, just Scout setting the scene, and beginning to tell me a story about her childhood.
It’s a childhood showing the racial prejudices in 1930s Alabama, but through the innocent eyes of six year old Scout Finch. The book is structured in three parts:
- An introduction to life in Maycomb. Scout, her brother Jam, and their friend Dill play together in the summertime; fantasising about their neighbour. Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley is a recluse, and has become a figure of legend in the tales of local children. The effects of the Great Depression are everywhere, poverty is rife, and times are hard for everyone.
- The trial of Tom Robinson. Tom, a local black man, is accused of raping a white woman, and Scout’s father Atticus is appointed to defend him. Atticus, along with several other members of the town, is determined that Tom will get a fair trial. The trial is held, Tom is found guilty, and sentenced to death. While Scout doesn’t think it’s a fair or just outcome, she doesn’t understand the prejudice of the townsfolk that we see through her eyes.
- The aftermath of the trial. Scout’s brother Jem is horrified by the failure of the justice system and the hypocrisy of the townsfolk. Tom Robinson has lost hope and is shot trying to escape from jail. Bob Ewell, who made the false accusation of rape, was made a fool of in court and vows revenge on Atticus and his family.
Despite Scout’s playful tone, and happy nature, the book constantly skewers the bigotry and hypocrisy of Southern America. At first it looks like Harper Lee is just poking fun at classism, racism, and the gender roles of the time. Similar to Huckleberry Finn. However, she quickly presents the everyday injustices of life, relentlessly showing the destructive effect of hate and fear, both on those who are its victim, and those who perpetrate it.
This doesn’t come across in a preachy manner. Throughout the story there is a strong sense of humanity, faith that good people can make a difference, and that things will get better.
I really recommend ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, it’s well worth the effort to get started, and I can see why it won the Pulitzer.