Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee 1960

From the book jacket:

“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 rich humor and unswerving honesty the irrationality of adult attitudes toward race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s.

I recently took the opportunity to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird for a client project. It had been 16+ years since I last read it, but I had a vague memory of liking the character Scout, and being pulled almost instantly into the world of Maycomb, Alabama. Since I have Harper Lee’s latest (and only other) novel Go Set a Watchman on my reading list, I wanted to freshen my memory.

I’d forgotten what Lee does best, and why I liked the book so much in the first place: she records human interaction and the fabric of a small town with such clear and subtle observation. The relationships between the people of Maycomb feel incredibly real: the grudges, the romances past, the straight-up honesty that comes from living alongside the same folks, generation after generation. Scout and Jem are both insiders and outsiders in their community — they come from an old, respected family, and they also have a highly educated and radical parent. Atticus Finch is unapologetically compassionate, whip-smart, and doesn’t see the use in hiding truths about the world from his kids.

I feel so attached to Scout in her early girlhood; her love and admiration for her father; her hilarious observations of her brother as he becomes a moody pre-teen; her realization of how girls and women are treated by society. As an adult I love her precocious and curious nature, so skillfully communicated by Lee, who chose to write this book first person from Scout’s point of view.

Repeat readings of a book usually cause me to reflect on the differences between then and now: our experience of a story is affected by our own life experience, our knowledge of the world around us. In fact, I would argue that a good story is one that causes us to reflect on those things, and in this respect, To Kill a Mockingbird succeeds tremendously. It delivers as much wisdom today as it did when it was published in 1960— I actually wish every American would read it now, today, whether it’s again or for the first time. On the other hand, it’s difficult to see why a book like To Kill a Mockingbird was and is an instant and continued success in a deeply divided, classist and racist country like the United States. But perhaps it’s due to Lee’s honest and complete depiction of each of her characters — prejudiced, kind, simple, lazy, old, dirty, mean, poor, gossipy — flawed, each of them, regardless of their status or heritage, and written through the eyes of a child who is still willing to understand those unlike herself. 

At what age, exactly, do we give up trying to do that?