What can one say about a 55-year old book that has won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, been translated into more than forty languages, sold more than thirty million copies worldwide, been made into an enormously popular movie, and voted the best novel of the 20th century by US librarians, that hasn’t already been said? Well, perhaps just looking at it as the first of a pair of books will bring a bit of a new perspective. And possibly, looking back at how the world was more than fifty years ago, will also cause us to wonder again at how amazing it was that a book about racial injustice in the south was well-received at all!
This was my first reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I have to admit my visual of the story was affected by pictures I had seen from the movie with Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, and Robert Duvall (which I haven’t seen yet). First and foremost, this is a family portrait. A family that consists of a father, Atticus, a lawyer, doing his best to raise two young children after the death of his wife. Some of the neighbours, and some of his relatives, don’t think he’s going about it the right way, but his home is one full of love, respect, and a sense of justice — love for each member of the family (including Calpurnia, the cook), respect for each other, privacy, neighbours, education, and the law, and justice for all regardless of skin colour. There is never any doubt in the minds of Jem and Scout (our nine-year-old narrator) that they are unconditionally loved by Atticus. Scout says, “Jem and I found our father satisfactory; he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachment.” Overseeing the operations of the house — cooking, cleaning, sewing, and the children — is Calpurnia who,
was all angles and bones; she was near-sighted; she squinted; her hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard. . . Our battles were always epic and one-sided . . . mainly because Atticus always took her side. She had been with us ever since Jem was born and I had felt her tyrannical presence as long as I could remember.
The children accept her so totally, that when Atticus is detained at the state legislature, they happily go off to church with Calpurnia, much to the chagrin of some of the neighbours and family, but not at all to the population of the negro church. (I use the term ‘negro’ here as it does in the book, and as it certainly was used in the 50s when the book was written, and in the 30s when the story takes place; it was not used pejoratively as the term ‘nigger’ certainly was.) Atticus told his sister, Alexandra, in no uncertain terms that Calpurnia was family:
Calpurnia’s not leaving this house until she wants to. You may think otherwise, but I couldn’t have got along without her all these years. She’s a faithful member of this family and you’ll simply have to accept things the way they are … and another thing, the children love her.
It is also a coming of age story as the children, with their friend Dill who visited their neighbour during the summers, learn to respect the feelings of those with less than themselves, those who wish to remain withdrawn, and those who may disagree with Scout’s family’s political views on race and justice. Atticus may let his children run a bit wild and free but he always makes sure they treat others with respect and never fight unless mightily provoked. Even Aunt Alexandra learned to respect both Atticus and Calpurnia’s methods of child-rearing.
I think one of the best parts of the book is the scene in front of the jail when Jem, Scout, and Dill finally find Atticus late at night after checking his office first. They are about to leave when several cars arrive and men step out and challenge Atticus to move aside. Just as things are getting particularly tense, Scout breaks out of the shadows and runs to her father, expecting him to be happy, but he certainly is not. He begs Jem to take them all home but Jem won’t budge. Scout diffuses the whole situation by recognizing one of her dad’s clients in the crowd of men and beginning a discussion with him about his legal problems, his son, and how much she likes his son, Walter, when she gradually realizes that the whole crowd is listening intently to her, including her father. Just as she is beginning to wonder
what idiocy [she] had committed, Mr. Cunningham squatted down and took [her] by both shoulders. “I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady,” he said. Then he straightened up and waved a big paw. “Let’s clear out,” he called. “Let’s get going, boys.
And a little child shall lead them.
The funniest part of the book (perhaps because I’m a retired teacher) was when Scout begins school and already knows how to read anything you put in front of her and the teacher, who has a new method of teaching, tells her she will have to unlearn everything her father has taught her and tells Scout she’s to tell her father to stop teaching her at home. So many new ideas are just as ridiculous as that one!
The story of how Jem came to break his arm, which is what Scout is about when she begins her narration, is about accepting people as people, no matter what colour their skin is, and judging only when you’ve looked at something from the other person’s perspective, that “most people are [nice], when you finally see them”. When Scout stands in front of the Radley house, she is amazed at everything Boo would have seen, day after day, right from his front window. If the editor was so intrigued with Go Set a Watchman that she wanted to have a book that told the backstory, then I’m doubly looking forward to reading the sequel. * * * * *