Friday, November 11, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

“All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbor was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.”

I have to tell you something that might upset you: Until now, I had never read To Kill a Mockingbird. 
 Don’t stop reading! I know you might find my confession shocking, appalling even. Many do (though not so much as the news that, until very recently, I had also never seen Star Wars). But please, don’t hold it against me. As I often tell people, “I was never made to read a book in high school” - a true, if not altogether fair, statement.
            Now I have read the famous book thanks to my friend, Turner (find his excellent blog about being an “adjunct” librarian at who bought it for me on one of our recent jaunts to a local organic – I mean independent – bookstore. (I said the Bay area had superior indie bookstores and Turner is attempting to prove me wrong, with lots of fun, if little success). So, for the past couple weeks I’ve been falling asleep with a chapter or two of Scout, Atticus, and Jem Finch’s adventures in Maycomb County.  Now that I’ve read the book I’m no longer surprised that it was not an assigned text in my hometown. It uses the “N word” a lot, for one thing. For another, I think most folks in my town would probably not appreciate the insinuation from the author that the Finches, due primarily to Atticus’s education, are better than the average, everyday Joe. I mean, they don’t even go to church.
            My take on the book, at least the one I feel most interested in pursuing right now, is that it is about class, much more so than race. Of course it is. “The thing about it is, our kind of folks don’t like the Cunninghams, the Cunninghams don’t like the Ewells, and the Ewells hate and despise the colored folks” (229). The problem is not just racial prejudice, it’s prejudice in general – How can her teacher hate Hitler for killing Jews when she herself despises the black people in her own town? Scout wants to know. This is a complex question without a simple answer or a happy ending for (most – the altruistic Finches, of course, being the exception) white people – not the kind of thing I was taught to think about in high school. In fact, many of Scout’s observations about education might well be applied to my own, and while her experience is presented with humor rather than overt criticism, it is by no means held up as a shining beacon of truth and tolerance. “Why [the teacher] frowned when a child recited from The Grit Paper I never knew, but in some way it was associated with liking fiddling, eating syrupy biscuits for lunch, being a holy-roller, singing Sweetly Sings the Donkey and pronouncing it dunkey, all of which the state paid teachers to discourage” (247) – an indictment of small-town social/moral indoctrination if I ever heard one.
            The problem with the book, for me, is that Atticus is too perfect. I found myself admiring him, as the author clearly wants me to, but grudgingly. He’s too calm, too heroic. He’s the Jesus figure of the novel, a secular Jesus for the bleeding heart liberals on the coasts (is what some people I know might have said). Scout is too smart, her eyes too keen. What child understands and notices as much about the paradoxes of humanity as Scout does? Even the mysterious shut-in, Boo Radley, is unrealistically selfless and caring. (Boy, I sure do sound cynical, don’t I?) In fact, everyone in the book is pretty damn wholesome, despite the author’s frequent protestations to the contrary. Everybody, that is, except Bob Ewell; the villain of the novel ultimately gets his just desserts by “falling on his knife” and dying (Did Boo kill him? Or was it really Jem? Am I supposed to know?), a reasonably satisfying ending, I suppose, and certainly one with a clear moral message: prejudices kill not only the victims, but the perpetrators, too.           
I enjoyed the novel, and getting to know the characters in it. I think it is a good book that raises important and interesting questions in a charming and unexpected way. These are all excellent accomplishments. But I can’t help thinking that I would have appreciated it more had I read it when I was younger, less informed, and more hopeful.
            Please don’t stop reading if by this post I’ve cut a tiny hole in one of your favorite literary memories. Instead, tell me why I’m wrong and what I’m missing here. Thanks for reading. :) 

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