To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Thanks to Dave, I have a great lead off for this blog post. 

Homer Simpson often says the wisest things.  For example: “What’s the point of going out? We’re just going to wind up back here anyway.”  Or.  “Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!”

For my book this week, To Kill a Mockingbird, Mr. Simpson provided us with this:  “Books are useless! I only ever read one book, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and it gave me absolutely no insight on how to kill mockingbirds! Sure it taught me not to judge a man by the color of his skin… but what good does that do me?”  Ponder that for a minute before continuing to my obligatory paragraph telling you which authors listed To Kill A Mockingbird in their top ten.  Also, be aware that if for some insane reason the book hadn’t been in The Top Ten, I would have forced it into a blog entry anyway.

Chris Bohjalian, Judy Budnitz, Pearl Cleage, Michael Connelly, Sue Monk Kidd, Alexander McCall Smith and Susan Vreeland all listed To Kill a Mockingbird.

In addition the book has received numerous other awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

I last read this book at least 20 years ago.  So, I remembered bits and pieces of it, intermingled with bits and pieces of the movie, last seen around the same time frame.  Now, I will state that the fact that I remembered bits and pieces of it speak as to the strength of the novel and its quality as I often don’t remember anything about a book a month after reading it, much less 2 decades or more later. 

I think most of you reading this blog will already have heard or discussed yourself the racial implications, as also even noted by the esteemed Mr. Simpson above, of To Kill a Mockingbird.  I wanted to focus today on, to me, what makes this book so amazing other than that theme (since there are other works of fiction revolving around racial injustice that haven’t endured quite as well). 

First, one of the things that I had forgotten was exactly how the book got its title.  Scout, the main character/first person narrator of the story and her brother Jem, get guns for Christmas one year.  Their dad, Atticus Finch, tells them the following:

“”I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds.  Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”  That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.  “Your father’s right,” she said.  “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.  They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.  That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

The whole of the story is a coming of age story.  Which I hate sounding, because it sounds so trite, and is always what people say about books with children narrators, but it’s true.  Through the three years approximately that this book covers, you see Jem and Scout go from being scared of an unknown thing (Boo Radley, their recluse neighbor) to not being scared of him due to the events of the book (their father’s defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman, who obviously did not do it) showing them the real evils of the world.  The trial is only about 2/3rds of the novel, the other third deals with Boo Radley and also just the day to day life of Scout, Jem, their father, their black servant who Atticus refers to as family, Calpurnia and Scout and Jem’s aunt, Alexandra.  Their friend, Dill, who comes in the summer also plays a major role.

Going back to the title and the quote I put above, Lee shows both subtly in some cases and not so subtly in others the mockingbirds being “killed”.

1.  Jem and Scout.  As children, they could fit into the whole mockingbird innocence theme.  They haven’t had the chance to do anything that makes them more of a bad thing.  However, the whole of the events of the trial slowly wears that innocence down.  Jem loses faith in his home.  This is the more subtle one, as Lee doesn’t seem to make a big deal about trying to get the reader to see this.

2.  Boo Radley.  Towards the end of the book, Scout likens exposing Boo to the world to shooting a mockingbird.  Boo is a recluse for a reason, and for him to be exposed to the town’s scrutiny would be killing that, killing Boo.

3.  Tom Robinson, the black defendant accused of raping the white woman.  For anyone that has read the book, this is a clear cut example of the title. 

The tight fitting of her theme and how it relates to the characters is one of the ways that Lee has set this book apart from others.

Another is her sense of…timing? I’m not sure entirely what word I’m looking for here, but you keep turning pages.  And for me, I turned those pages in an almost breathless state.  The pace! that’s the word, the pace.  Lee keeps you going, never dragging a bit of narrative or dialogue or description.  It all fits together in a whole, which very few works of literature or even cinema achieve. 

Harper Lee also details characters amazingly.  You know, without a doubt, as if you were a resident of the town who characters are, based upon everything from two lines of description, to the assumption made about them compared to the reality of them exposed in just a couple of lines, to pages upon pages of character observations. 

These are all reasons I would have included To Kill a Mockingbird in this blog, even if no author had listed it as a favorite.

Random interesting trivia about it all.  Truman Capote, of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s fame, and Harper Lee were friends from childhood.  Capote would stay with his cousins next door to Harper’s house.  Harper Lee helped Capote research In Cold Blood.  In 1960, Truman Capote, in a letter to friends, wrote:

Nelle’s book is high on the best-seller list; she has gone home to Monroeville for a month. And yes, my dear, I am Dill.”

Sadly, though, Homer Simpson is right.  There’s no advice on how to kill mockingbirds.  Or any other type of birds.  Though there is a demonstration on how to shoot a rabid dog from down the street, in a very non Old Yeller way.

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One response to “To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

  1. Pingback: In which I go slightly offtopic | Eleven and a Half Years of Books

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