Friday, January 3, 2014

Classic Fiction: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

For me, which book I decide to start off with for the new year is somewhat of a big deal. Last year I went with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as it felt appropriate for the first blog post of 2013. This time, I have decided to go with Harper Lee's great classic To Kill A Mockingbird. I have yet to meet anyone who has ever read this book and just hated it, and even after reading just the first few chapters it becomes clear why it has remained a favorite for so long.

The Situation: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) and her older brother Jeremy (Jem) live with their father, Atticus, in Maycomb, Alabama in 1930s America. While Atticus works as a lawyer, and their black maid Calpurnia takes care of the house, Scout and Jem do what kids are known to do: they make up ridiculous games; go on adventures, some of which are actually kind of dangerous; they fight; they get dirty, and they tell tales involving some of the mysteries surrounding their small town. One such mystery involves Arthur "Boo" Radley, a shut-in that the children have never seen. The children know to leave him alone, but when a young boy named Dill starts visiting Maycomb every summer, the children begin plotting ways to see Boo Radley, despite instructions from Atticus to leave him alone. But aside from their misadventures involving the Radley house, the children live their somewhat simple lives in a small Alabama town.

The Problem: As Scout will learn later, life in Maycomb, or anywhere really, isn't all that simple, and Atticus knows it. In fact, Atticus knows a lot of stuff that Scout and Jem just don't realize. Atticus also knows what is to come after he is assigned to defend Tom Robinson, a local black man accused of raping a white woman. Even though Atticus was assigned to the case and didn't volunteer for it, the adults have taken to calling him a disgrace, and their children are repeating these ideas to his children, causing Scout to get into her fair share of fights. Soon, the Finch children forget about getting Boo Radley out of his house, and begin to worry for their father's safety, and the outcome of his case.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. It is a coming of age novel that follows Scout, the narrator, as she navigates life as a child growing up in this small southern town. Most of the time she is with her older brother Jem, and every summer they spend with their friend Dill when he visits. The beginning of the novel focuses mostly on the legend of Boo Radley and how he ended up the way he is. The children treat his house almost as if it were haunted, even though Boo Radley is just as alive as they are, and they see Boo's father, Mr. Nathan Radley, come and go from the house everyday. Still, the children run instead of walk past it, and will only go past the front gate and into the yard if dared to do so. As the novel moves on, the Tom Robinson case slowly comes to the forefront of the story. As Scout becomes more aware of the particulars of the case, so does the reader, and eventually Boo Radley is almost completely forgotten about. Due to Atticus being busy as a lawyer, and Scout and Jem not having a mother, the two of them often have to work out on their own how they feel about things and what they believe is right. And while they often assume Atticus has no clue what they're up to and won't understand, he proves time and time again that he knows and understands way more than they would have ever believed.

For me, probably the most amazing fact about this novel is that it is the only one Harper Lee ever wrote. For some reason I find that crazy to think about, and yet, it is true.

My Verdict: There are a few books out there that some have considered to be the Great American Novel. Often included are Moby Dick and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If I were allowed to cast a vote, I would pick To Kill A Mockingbird. It is one of the few books out there that almost everyone has to read at some point during their education that I actually believe people should be forced to read. Oftentimes a child narrator can become annoying or grating, and while Scout is most definitely a child in many ways, she offers that insight into situations and people that no adult could ever provide, but must come from someone that few people would think to look to for guidance. Something about her open frankness and inquisitive nature will often cause the reader to shake their head while chuckling at the same time. And Atticus is just the man to be her father and always look out for her, especially when her older brother Jem isn't up to the responsibility. It is a book about race relations in early 20th century America, as well as a book about innocence, family, the court system, and small town living. Also it is a book about what exactly makes someone crazy and a shame to society. 

Favorite Moment: When Scout and Jem go with Calpurnia to her black church and are amazed at how they worship.

Favorite Character: First place goes to Atticus Finch. He is a true man, and is doing his best to raise two young children in a small town while also working as a lawyer. He does everything he can to remain beyond reproach and always acts as a gentleman, especially when it is difficult to do so. He gets a place in my heart right next to Jean Valjean from Les Miserables. A very close second place goes to Arthur "Boo" Radley, but if I told you why it would kind of ruin the book.

Recommended Reading: It is incredibly difficult to find a book that can follow this up, but I will go ahead and pick Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This time the narrator is a college-aged black man and the novel follows him as he journeys from the south up to the streets of Harlem. It is a very different book from Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, so adjust your expectations accordingly. 

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