Saturday, September 23, 2006

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

"Naw, Jem, I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks." Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird

I can't think of a more profound line, in any book save the Bible, that totally captures my feelings about the world that we inhabit. Harper Lee, the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, could not have better summed up my feelings if she had asked me herself what I thought. How, in 1961, did a Southern woman writer create a work of art that still has the power to move people? I only wish I knew.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time almost 20 years ago. It was required reading in one of my English classes, so I read it. It wasn't a book that I would have normally read on my own, since it had nothing to do with romance or mythology. However, I can remember being moved by the story of Scout and Jem, their father Atticus, and the small Alabama town in which they lived. I had no idea how much the story said, or even what it said, the first time I read it. I just knew that I'd read something wonderful, something that brought that small town alive in my head. I understood Scout's struggle to figure out her place in her town, to untangle the mysteries of race and inequality, to fight against hypocrisy.

Jean Louise (Scout) Finch is growing up in Maycomb county, Alabama, during the Great Depression. She lives with her father, Atticus, the town lawyer. Her idol is her older brother, Jem. Calpurnia, the negro family housekeeper, is a major force in young Scout's life. Unlike many other families that Scout encounters, hers is near the top of the social ladder of her small town. Scout tries, throughout the book, to make sense of the class structure that seems to govern her life. Sometimes she's successful, sometimes she isn't. Throughout it all though, Scout learns that the true value of any person lies not in the eyes of their society, but in the heart of each individual person. Worth and value have nothing to do with skin color or social status. Every person is an individual, regardless of any instances of mob mentality.

I loved this book 20 years ago, but I don't know that I would have re-read it if it weren't for my husband. He sent me a link to a Google site that talks about Banned Book Week. Over 40 of Radcliffe Publishing House's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century have been either challenged or banned. To Kill a Mockingbird is on that list of banned/challenged books. Being the slightly rebellious and intensely curious person that I am, I decided to re-read TKAM, and try to figure out just why the book has caused such an uproar. I mean, I have a high-schooler, and 5 more headed in that direction eventually. I should really know what they're supposed to be reading, right? So in I dove, and I didn't come to the surface for air for almost 20 hours.

What I've finally decided is that the challenges and banning of books boils down to fear and ignorance. I'm not calling people stupid (though I may have used that word in a fit of anger earlier when trying to explain this to my oldest child). I just think that ignorance is rampant these days, especially in regards to what people want to hide from other people. I'm NOT an African American. I'm not a Black, or a negro person. I can't even begin to comprehend some of the things that they have experienced, even in very recent history. However, I do belong to a minority, and I know how touchy I can be about certain things. I'm a Native American, of the Cheyenne tribe. My father likes to remind me that I'm an "Indian Princess", and he's not exaggerating. So I know a little bit about racism. Granted, my skin pigment isn't all that dark, and I'm usually mistaken for a Mexican (which carries it's own set of prejudices), but I can still understand the concept, ok? Yet, I can't find anything in this book that is malicious to any group of people.

Ms. Lee shows how it was in many small Southern towns during the great Depression. She doesn't try to hide the racism, she brings it right out into the open. You see it all through Scout's eyes, and it isn't always pretty. However, that's exactly what makes this book so incredible. The ugliness and the evil aren't hidden, the author doesn't try to pretend they don't exist. The reader sees them as Scout sees them, and they are ever-present parts of daily life. The difference with this book is that Ms. Lee doesn't try to excuse them, or justify them. She tells, through Scout's voice, just how wrong these things are. As the reader, you are exposed to hypocrisy (the missionary ladies that want to bring Christianity to tribes in Africa, yet think the black townspeople are getting too full of themselves), bigotry (Mrs. Dubose down the street, that doesn't approve of Atticus' new client), and family strife (Scout's own family is angry because Atticus is defending a black man accused of raping a white woman). While Scout realizes how prevalent these things are in her life, the reader has the chance to recognize a few things as well.

Racism still happens today. You really can't deny that. We may be moving forward, but we still have a long way to go. However, trying to ban a book because it uses the "N" word or other racial slurs, or because the reality that it presents is something you'd rather forget ever happened, is just NOT the answer. You can't hide the books and pretend these things never happened just because you're ashamed of them. Banning books is NEVER the answer.

Overcome your fears and pick this book up. Read it through and tell me if this story isn't beautiful. If you hate it, tell me that as well. I want to hear it. I can take it.

There are books and websites dedicated to unraveling this literary hunk of gold, and you can find a few of them here.

"But remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." - Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird


Cheryl said...

I've actually only read 2 of the books on the list -- 1984 and To Kill A Mockingbird. I was in 10th grade when I read TKAM. It wasn't required reading but it was on a list of choices for a book report that we had to do. Otherwise, like you, I probably would not have chosen it on my own. But I am so glad that I did read it. It gave me perspective on life through someone else's eyes. And the scene with the dead bird is etched in my mind and surfaces whenever this book is discussed. Thanks for the re-visit with it.

Sheri said...

I am beginning to feel deprived--we didn't have a required realing list at my high school so I missed out on a lot of classics! After reading your review, I think a visit to my local library is in order... And I think you are right--those that want to ban books ARE ignorant. They probably haven't even READ the books they want to ban! Great review, also, by the way! :)

McB said...

What hits me most, lookin at this list, is that its been way too long since I've read some of these books. TKAM, or 1984, or OMAM ... the problem with a great book is that it has such cultural identity it always seems as if you must have just read it.

Many years ago I realized that there were stories out there that I thought I knew, like THE THREE MUSKATEERS or THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK that I in fact hadn't read. So I set myself the task of reading some of these immediately recognizable title. And it is something I would advise everyone to do. Because you only THINK you know what its about. You don't. You have to read the book to really know it.

So now I'm looking at these books on the list of 42 Dee linked too and realizing that yes I did read them but like TKAM for her, its been many many years and some of them deserve better than that. In fact now that I think about it I'm going to see if I can't find an old favorite - not on the 42 list but to me one of the best stories ever, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA by Ernest Hemingway. I'll reread this story of struggle and spirit and respecting your foe and be moved again. And while I'm at it, I just might grab TKAM too. And 1984 (which I last read in 1984), and maybe THE SUN ALSO RISES and a few others.

Seem to me that all these people accomplish when they denounce a book is to stir up curiousity. Hoisted on their own petard.

Bunny said...

I have read 8 of the books on the 42 banned list, but I have actualyl read quite a few more from the complete banned list. The book that really hit me was Fahrenheit 451. WOW...when i read that book I was so outraged. It was the first time I had been introduced to the thought of ruining books, but to get back to the matter at hand the book that changed me from the list of 42 was Brave New World. That book was just so out there, the thought of future like that was so foreign and frightening.

Thanks for blogging on Banned Book week! So many people have no idea it's even happening....


Toni Lea Andrews said...

I still quote this as a contender in the "best book I ever read" category. An adult friend of mine picked it up for the first time because of banned book week, and was blown away.

ikkinlala said...

I've read 15 of the 42 on that list. Some were powerful, others forgettable (I really don't see why Catcher in the Rye has such a reputation), and some I need to reread because I was too young the first time to understand them.

I'm not sure which, if any of them, has changed my life the most, but I remember thinking that Lord of the Flies was particularly appropriate for a novel study because it fit in well with the social realities of high school.

Tina marie said...

From: wiser
Posts: 32 I
I got totally knocked off my feet mentally my 14 yr old son Prince has a book report due, so I joined in as I always do to give pointers and just to share his assignments so I said, Prince why don't you read chapter 7 to me, I'll in turn write down the important points and you'll have a study guide, so he began to read "Which He Is A Great Reader" so his words were instantly understood , yet just for a short time as he read I felt as if I suddenly was forced into a time machine and I could'nt get out, I got mad enough to well let's just say enough to hurt someone! he read "The old man ran down the stairs and said neighbor if you see
a pale white man running shot at him that "n" word"I done shot at and scared him white don't worry I'll shot me a "igger"yet Title Of Book: "TO Kill A Mocking Bird" Prince then explained the whole encounter, he was asked to read the 2 paragraphs out loud, when he got to the word"igger" then he explain "Mom I Felt Ashamed to be black because it felt so wrong" so I just froze up she asked what was wrong I explained my displeasure with repeating the "N Word" the teacher responded by telling him to just skip it and continue which he ran into "igger 3 more times so the reading to say the least was pure aniexity! I asked if he was making this awful word up to get on my nerves? he said see for your self, and I did, I counted the word "igger" 48 times in the book (48 times ) I lost it" I took the book and told him this assignment is over that this book could only serve as a downer to Africian American Children, how dare a teacher have my baby read a book which alters his state of mind from feeling good about him self which with the help of God, I had until now, done by most folk account a good job,the book was written in 1960 he was born in1993 so why would he need to be subjected to such humiliation and shame for which none he'sresponsible for? "GREAT QUESTION" I KNOW! this is 2008 why are our children being mishandeled like this you want to know how "To Kill A Mocking Bird? "SHOOT IT" OR BETTER YET "BURN THE DAM BOOK" SERIOUSLY "LET THE BIRD LIVE" "KILL THE BOOK"!!!