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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee Lee

Like everyone else, I read this in school, and do not recall having strong feelings about it. This year I decided to re-read it, alongside Go Set a Watchman, for the sake of having an informed opinion about both. This is such a well-known book that there’s no need for another review of it; what follows are some thoughts from this time around. There may be spoilers.


What struck me right away is Lee’s craft: her writing and storytelling (not the same thing) are both excellent. I have a habit of reading the openings of books when I first bring them home, and sometimes several more times before actually starting to read them, just to whet my appetite. I tried that with this book and didn’t stop for more than 50 pages. The story is compelling, every scene comes vividly to life, and yet there’s an impressive economy of language – at some point I realized I was moving through the book more slowly than expected, not because it’s difficult to read (it isn’t) but because every word is important. It is simply a pleasure to read.


And yet, I did not fall in love with the characters the way many readers have. I am not generally a fan of stories told through the eyes of young children (even though Scout is recounting events from an adult vantage point, and I enjoyed her voice), and Scout, unsurprisingly for a 6- to 8-year-old, feels a little unformed, at the margins of the real story. At times it felt I was reading a father-son story from the wrong perspective. It was distancing.


Whatever else this may be, it does not read like a YA book; novels written before that marketing category existed generally don’t. Scout is too young for teen fiction, and the book isn’t really about her. One never loses sight of the fact that the other characters in it all have lives that don’t revolve around her; that is a sign of good writing, of course. The book does have a tendency to provide explicit moral lessons, generally through Atticus, but I took these scenes less as moralizing at the reader than as a portrayal of a harried single father looking for teachable moments in difficult situations. And the book doesn’t make everything explicit: did I realize as a kid that Mayella was sexually abused by her father, that Tom Robinson definitely wasn’t climbing a fence, that the sheriff’s true concern for Boo isn’t an excess of cakes?


Of course, some of the book’s biggest moral lessons have to do with race, and on that subject there are ways the book has aged very well and ways that it hasn’t. Make no mistake: this book is all about white people. The central conflict is between educated, fair-minded white people, who are nonetheless paternalistic in their attitudes, and the rest of the white community, who, as Atticus observes, lose their heads over race. Black people are almost incidental to this conflict – the only semi-developed black character is the housekeeper, Calpurnia, and it’s a white man, Atticus Finch, who’s positioned as Tom Robinson’s savior.


With the publication of Go Set a Watchman, there has been talk about Atticus’s (and Lee’s) views on segregation. It is interesting that this book, published in 1960 and known as a seminal book about race in America, barely addresses what was the great moral and political issue of the day. It is also interesting that, in the early draft (that being Go Set a Watchman), she did – that early version was set in the 1950s, but by Mockingbird it had become historical fiction, taking place in the 30s. That could be viewed as a cop-out: it’s always easier to be on the right side of history when you’re writing about the past. And yet, the funny thing is that while the great issue of Harper Lee’s day has been resolved – no more legally enforced segregation – the issues she reached back into the past to write about – inequality in the criminal justice system; black men being shot by white officials under suspicious circumstances – are still absolutely timely in 2015.


Then too, readers would be mistaken to think that Lee could only see the most egregious forms of injustice; there are subtler observations, too. Scout notices, for instance, that white people driving back from the dump use black residents’ yards to turn around in. And Calpurnia and her son work menial jobs despite their evident intelligence (she taught him to read using Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England). When Lee does address segregation, it’s in the context of white people crossing the color line, never the other way around – but it’s evident where she stands. And in that context, I don’t believe Atticus, as the moral center of the novel, is a segregationist in his final incarnation.


I won’t be reading about Atticus’s earlier incarnations, though, because in reading this novel, I realized that Watchman is superfluous. We already have Lee’s final product, the excellent novel that was the only book she ever meant to publish. I am satisfied to have enjoyed it as Harper Lee intended, and I’ll leave it at that.