Sunday, 8 June 2014

Review: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Book cover of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I have spent the last two days so engrossed in this book that I have an uncomfortable tight feeling in my stomach, and I was actually vaguely surprised upon looking up that there is a world apart from 1930s Alabama. I was indifferent about beginning my reread of To Kill A Mockingbird, but now I'm not sure whether to cry, throw up or just continue to wander round with a shellshocked expression. This book is just unbelievable.

Plot summary:
'Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.'

A lawyer's advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee's classic novel - a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the thirties. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man's struggle for justice. But the weight of history will only tolerate so much.

Hmm. I thought the 'mockingbird' of the story was Boo Radley. Thoughts?

I wish there was a way to really and truly impress on everybody just how much they should read this book. I know some schools teach taught it (nice one, Michael Gove) but it's not the same as reading it alone, allowing it to affect you and being willing to take on everything it can offer. I have read it before, in 2009, but I don't think I really 'got' it - or at least, I don't remember feeling the same way I do right now.

To Kill A Mockingbird is the best book I've read all year, which is saying something as my first read was Pride and Prejudice. It helps that I know that book by heart and this was full of surprises, but it doesn't really matter. I literally finished the book ten minutes ago and skipped a review list of twelve just because I want to talk about it now, so excuse me when I start to ramble.

The story builds slowly but very effectively. It's told from Scout Finch's perspective, who is barely eight years old. She only gradually comes to understand what's happening with regard to the trial and even then can't really reconcile the facts with the implications. It's the innocence of the children that really brings home the injustices - Jem, who is 12, is just so damn certain that Tom Robinson is going to be aquitted, with the condescending but well-meaning arrogance of a child. They don't understand people as a whole, and just how deceitful and prejudiced they can be.

Their father, Atticus, has shown them the correct path but they haven't yet grasped that he's different from the townfolk. As their only reference point, they assume that he is the norm, not the exception, and the evidence to the contrary only unbalances their perception of justice.

   "Doesn't make it right," Jem said stolidly. He beat his fist softly on his knee. "You can't just convict a man on evidence like that - you can't."
   "You couldn't, but they could and did. The older you grow the more of it you'll see. The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a court-room, be he any colour of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day 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."
This isn't some dry, dusty legal drama - far from it. The tension and atmosphere in the courtroom scenes is unbelievable. We only see excerpts of the trial as a play-by-play of any case would bore us all to tears, but the parts we do read are just perfect. I honestly felt like I was sat on the balcony with Scout, Jem and Dill, watching every cross-examination and hysterical witness. It seems real.

Obviously some interesting moral and legal questions are raised, but Harper Lee never lectures or drags down the story with them. Apparently the book is based on her father, Amasa Lee, who defended a black client in 1923. Hence the accuracy of the fictional court procedure and presumably the societal attitudes as well, I'd assume.

   Jem was shaking his head. “I know it’s not right, but I can’t figure out what’s wrong — maybe rape shouldn’t be a capital offense....”
   Atticus dropped his newspaper beside his chair. He said he didn’t have any quarrel with the rape statute, none what ever, but he did have deep misgivings when the state asked for and the jury gave a death penalty on purely circumstantial evidence. He glanced at me, saw I was listening, and made it easier. “—I mean, before a man is sentenced to death for murder, say, there should be one or two eye-witnesses. Some one should be able to say, ‘Yes, I was there and saw him pull the trigger.’”
   “But lots of folks have been hung — hanged — on circumstantial evidence,” said Jem.
   “I know, and lots of ‘em probably deserved it, too — but in the absence of eye-witnesses there’s always a doubt, some times only the shadow of a doubt. The law says ‘reasonable doubt,’ but I think a defendant’s entitled to the shadow of a doubt. There’s always the possibility, no matter how improbable, that he’s innocent.”
What really makes this book are the tiny scenes that are trivial and unnecessary for plot development, but touch you nevertheless. My favourite scene in the whole book was where the 'Negroes' donate a larder full of food - just little things that show how intricate and rich with detail To Kill A Mockingbird really is.

My only criticism (and it's a small one) is that I feel it hasn't aged all that well. I mean, it's still more than readable but once or twice I felt a little lost. I'm not always sure what they're getting at. For example, at one point Scout says that she knew what Atticus was trying to do, but it takes a woman to do that kind of thing. I had absolutely zero idea what Atticus was trying to do and I still don't.

I don't think I've adequately expressed the sheer wonder of the this book, but I've reached the end of my frantically scribbled notes. There's just so much symbolism, detail and tension without ever descending into moral lecturing. If you only read one book this year, please let it be this one.

Read Ellie's review of To Kill A Mockingbird (and the film too) at Book Addicted Blonde.  


  1. Yaaaaay! Yes, I also think that Boo Radley is the mockingbird, and I LOVE HIM. That tiny moment with the food left during the night in the Finches' yard was probably THE scene that I was really sad was missing from the movie, because in the book it made me cry. Anyway, you don't need me to tell you how much I loved it, and how ALL THE FEELS happened, and how it completely blew its own reputation out of the water for me (because I'm usually so leery of being disappointed by steadfast 'top of everyone's list' books), and YES. Good. :)

  2. I read this way back when I was about 14/15 (not as part of my curriculum as my school didn't study it). As much as I was pretty in awe of it back then I think it's about time I did a re-read as I'm certain I will have missed so much. You've pretty much persuaded me that a re-read is necessary.


  3. I just finished this book and am pretty blown away. I already know that I will re-read this in the future. For me, the best scene was at the end, when Scout looks at her street from Boo Radley's house and looks at the past three years from his point of view. Perfect!


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