I asked if I could review an old book, something well loved and read by millions. A book that most readers would know but which has come sharply into focus since 25 May 2020: the day George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis.
I first read To Kill a Mockingbird at school in about 1967 when I was fifteen. The story gripped me and, I am ashamed to admit, I still have my original (stolen) school copy beside me as I write! I was older than the narrator Scout Finch but not so much older that the antics of her day to day life failed to resonated with me, in all their glorious detail.
It was another fifty years before I read it again. I have occasionally been disappointed on re-reading a book I loved the first time around: not so with this one. This second reading threw up all the touch points of my own lived experience and I found I loved it even more. I was shocked by the nuance I missed originally, but what fifteen-year-old knows about nuance? Then I read it a third time in February this year; to see if there were things I had forgotten that could help me understand the horrors going on in America today. Not just the George Floyd murder but the insurrection too.
The novel at its simplest is a tale of two children growing up in the deeply segregated world of Maycomb, Alabama in the mid-1930s. The narrator is a young adult looking back on her childhood. Scout is six when the story begins and her elder brother Jem is ten. Their mother died four years before and Scout and Jem are devoted to their father Atticus, the town’s attorney. Atticus believes in never talking down to children and always answering every question: helping them to understand the world around them. The mother figure in the story is Calpurnia, the black cook/housekeeper, who loves the children as her own and has high standards of behaviour, which Scout and Jem work diligently to ignore. The third child we come to know and love is Dill, who comes every summer to stay with his aunt in the house next door. A fatherless, slightly old-fashioned, only child from Meridian, Mississippi, Dill is the catalyst the other two need for all that follows.
Written with a flowing natural style that effortlessly draws you into Scout’s world, it deals with major issues of the day in a clear gritty way and it is also very funny. In the final storyline, it seems perfectly natural that Scout, dressed as a ham, should be walking home in the dark with Jem after a school event. The ham plays an important role in the end-game. In fact, it could be said that without the ham she would be dead.
Whilst encircled by sharply-observed descriptions of their neighbours and Dill’s obsession with trying to get the recluse Boo Radley to come out of his house, the book has at its core Atticus’ defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Bob Ewell, a poor white farmer living with his large brood of children in virtual destitution on the outskirts of the town, accuses his black neighbour Tom Robinson of raping his eldest daughter Mayella. By the time the trial starts, Atticus has already saved Tom from a lynching by a crowd of men who turn up at the jail where he is being held. Scout, Jem and Dill sneak out at night and arrive just before the men. Scout unknowingly defuses the anger in the men when she spots the father of a classmate and speaks to him about his son. Her innocence and kindness prompt Mr. Cunningham to tell the other men to go home. This scene is the start of Scout’s understanding that nothing is fair for black people. (NB: The book was written only five years after the well-publicised lynching of teenager Emmett Till in 1955.)
Bob Ewell, in the eyes of the town is the lowest of the low but inherent racism tops even this and Tom Robinson in the ‘court’ of Maycomb is guilty before the trial starts. The judge sets Atticus to defend Tom as he knows Atticus to be an honest man who will not just put on a show of defence but the real thing; that is exactly what Atticus does. Scout, Jem and Dill, unbeknownst to Atticus, watch the whole trial from the ‘coloured gallery’, where they are brought to the front, known as they are to be Calpurnia’s charges and Atticus’ children. One thing that shocks white sensibilities at the trial is that Tom admits he felt sorry for Mayella being forced to look after her many siblings and her unpleasant father when her mother dies. In a segregated world how dare a black man have the temerity to feel sorry for a white man; even a Ewell. Even though it becomes obvious that Tom was physically incapable of giving Mayella the beating she received (he has a withered arm) the jury, after a very long deliberation, still finds him guilty.
As the story progresses there are things we discover and consider. This is where reading this book as an adult gives you a different perspective; the lessons are the same, just in sharper focus.
Prejudice of all kinds, be it based on religion, skin colour, age or anything else, is abhorrent.
This is something left for the reader to infer from the many characters in the book. As Miss Maudie says “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)... There are just some kind of men who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”
Atticus, when discussing the court-room verdict, says to Jem. “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.’
The majority of people are good at heart. As Scout says to Atticus after realising that Arthur Radley saved her. “Atticus, he was real nice." "Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”
There are so many things to take from this book. Not least the realisation that although laws may change, attitudes passed from generation to generation of people needing to find a scapegoat for their own failings, will be hard to change. The end of the Civil War and the American government’s inability to deal with the problem of how to integrate slaves into society, is a harvest still being reaped to this day. ‘Forty Acres and A Mule’ for liberated slaves, meant that someone somewhere, felt aggrieved that they were not included, particularly poor whites. The descendants of Bob Ewell were to be found at the Capitol on January 6th and it is no coincidence that the Confederate flag was much in evidence on that day.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an easy read, just right for a teenage mind needing a story that pulls you along but it is of course so much more than that. I hope I have inspired you to get back to it and give it another viewing; you will not be disappointed.