Thursday, 14 August 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This was a fabulous book. Yes, it’s a children’s book and was an easy read, but I loved it. Not in the same sense as I love Anne of Green Gables because it was happy, but because it touched on sensitive issues while conveying the atmosphere of the South from a child’s point of view. Jem and Scout live a fairly good and normal life with their father, Atticus, in a sleepy town in Alabama. There are only two things that separate them from other people in their town. The first is that they live next to a mysterious neighbour who never appears outside and of whom the town’s children have painted themselves a rather ghoulish picture. The other is that their father is a lawyer who is given the job of defending a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. Jem and Scout’s father is a liberal man who has, as much as you could expect from the era, taught his children that all men are created equal and that racism is wrong. What other people say and do doesn’t really affect them until their family becomes a target for their abuse. They are non-plussed to find that people can be so unfair and hateful when they were taught so much differently. In this respect, I, and probably most people, can sympathize with them. We all believe that what we are taught at home is right and are surprised to find that the world outside often looks a lot different than it is presented to us at home. It is, in a sense, the end of their innocence.

Atticus does his homework and destroys the case against Tom by basically proving that he is innocent. However, this was in a time when a simple baseless accusation against a black person was a sentence of guilt and Tom is convicted despite the incontrovertible proof that he could not possibly have done it. The (adult) reader knows this, but Jem and Scout are crushed with the sudden weight of knowing that a terrible injustice has been done. Every nerve cell in their brain is crying out that it was all so unfair, yet there was nothing they could do about it. It’s sad to watch the children learn the lesson that there are things in life you cannot change and you just have to go on living your life despite it all. It’s even sadder to realize that this is all a part of our history and is still part of society today even if to a lesser degree. Poor Tom never had a chance and it makes me wonder how often this still happens today. The only justice Tom received was that the whole town knew the truth after the trial, even if they were to cowardly to legally recognize it. They knew that the girl’s father, Bob Ewell made the story up to hide his own depravity.

I found myself wondering if Tom’s chances would have been better if the trial had taken place sooner. By the time the trial did take place, the whole town had basically taken their stance and to turn around and admit that they were wrong in a moment was asking them to loose face which is something their pride wouldn’t allow. They took the easy way out and convicted him anyway even though they knew it was an injustice. That just doesn’t say much for the humanity of man. It leaves you wondering if humans are really as advanced as we think we are.

The conclusion of the book was well done. Harper Lee managed to slip in another lesson to the children in the form of their reclusive neighbour Boo. The man they had made ghoulish and had treated badly with their taunts and tricks was the man who saved them from an attack by Bob Ewell who tried to take revenge on Atticus for destroying what was left of his name in the town by killing his children. Once again the children realized that the prevailing opinion wasn’t always the right one and that imposing characteristics onto other people often obscures the truth. They learned that there are many different shade of grey in between the black and white polar opposites.

All in all the book was a good read and gave me a lot to think about. It’s not hard to see why it is an American classic.

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