On the surface, the story is deceptively simple: In a Southern town suffering during the Great Depression, a poor white woman is accusing an equally poor black man of rape. In truth, with discrimination against African Americans still firmly in place, the townspeople find themselves in the grip of a profound moral crisis that is all encompassing. The story is told by Scout, one of the most enchanting child narrators I’ve ever encountered. At the same time as she and her brother Jem have to confront the changing sentiments towards them—their father is defending the alleged rapist—she is trying to figure out the secrets surrounding her mysterious neighbor Boo Radley, who hasn’t left his house in decades.
Using a child narrator is a tricky business. The author needs to walk a fine line between making the voice sound consistently convincing while giving enough away for the reader to understand what is going on. I think it is masterfully done here. I could hear Scout’s innocence throughout her narrative, while at the same time being confronted with issues that are profound and controversial: race, class, discrimination, and poverty. By having Scout repeat what adults tell her, and also describe how her older brother is reacting, I got a clear picture of different views and could reflect, with Scout, on the strengths and weaknesses of the characters that surround her.
Of course, above them all towers Atticus Finch. I am glad that I got small glimpses of his self-doubt here and there, because otherwise, he would have seemed too perfect. He is fair, tolerant, and patient. He is strict with his children, but he takes the time to explain his expectations of them. He works to instill the same integrity in them that he expects from himself. Can there be a better role model for a child—or other adults for that matter?
There are a number of scenes that stand out for me and will stay with me: the confrontation between Atticus and the lynch mob that has come to kill the accused Tom Robinson; Scout’s resolve to “behave like a lady” when they find out during her aunt’s missionary meeting that Tom Robinson has been shot by prison guards; and above all, Scout’s reflections when she sees the view from Boo Radley’s porch after she has accompanied him back to his house. It is such a perfect summary of the book, and also such a perfect example of the exceptional use of the child narrator.
Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.
The street lights were fuzzy from the fine rain that was falling. As I made my way home, I felt very old, but when I looked at the tip of my nose I could see fine misty beads, but looking cross-eyed made me dizzy so I quit. As I made my way home, I thought what a thing to tell Jem tomorrow. He’d be so mad he missed it he wouldn’t speak to me for days. As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra.
With the speculations about whether the newly published The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee has been sanctioned by Lee, I’ve read quite a few interviews with and opinions about Harper Lee. In one of them, Lee’s sister, when asked why Lee has never written another book, responded that once you’ve written a perfect book, there’s not much else to do. I agree with her: with To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee has written a perfect book.