Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

Despite its title, you won’t find anything like this in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

🙂 I’ll forewarn you that I will probably say more about the plot than I usually do. I don’t like to reveal key details in a review, but since I read this one this time in connection with Carrie’s  Reading to Know Classics Book Club, this discussion will involve others who have already read it, plus I am still processing some parts of it. But whatever I share about it, I will try not to spill all the major beans, and there will be much to discover if you do go on and read the book.

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the early 30s in a small Alabama town called Maycomb. The story is told through the eyes of Jean Louise Finch, known as Scout, who is six years old as the novel opens. She lives with her older brother, Jem, short for Jeremy, and her widowed father, Atticus, a lawyer. The first part of the book evokes a realistic feel of growing up in a sleepy Southern town. Jem and Scout and their friend, Dill, who comes to visit his aunt in Maycomb each summer, spend a great deal of their time trying to devise a way to get their reclusive neighbor, Arthur Radley, known as Boo, to come out. They meet with no success and get themselves in trouble over their escapades more than once. In these early scenes we get a picture of Scout, smart but bored at a school that scolds her for learning to read at home, Jem’s maturing into a young man, Atticus, who seems detached as a parent sometimes, but shows a depth of wisdom and integrity in handling his work, his life, and his children, and an overview of the citizenship of Maycomb.

There is something of a caste system in the South of this time, with “old” families concerned about their history and standing, to poor but decent folks, to uneducated “trash” who live near the dump. Then there are the Negroes or colored folks, as they are called in the book. There are varying degrees of feelings toward the colored people, with, sadly, most of the townsfolk considering them at least a race apart if not a race beneath. Atticus seems to be one of the few who believes that all people need to be treated with decency and respect no matter what their race.

The children get an inkling that their world is about to shift when they start getting taunted for their father being an “n-lover.” Scout is a scrappy tomboy and her first instinct in any confrontation is to answer with her fists. But her father asks her to refrain from fighting about this issue. The children learn that their father has been appointed the defense attorney for Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Most of the town thinks, at the very least, that it is not a good idea, and some are quite caustic about it, even to the children (which is low-down and dirty in my opinion.)

Tension builds until the day of the trial. Scout, Jem, and Dill sneak in to watch, and there is no room in the courthouse except in the colored section of the balcony, which welcomes them. Lee deftly handles the details of the case even though her narrator doesn’t really understand what rape is. The evidence is only circumstantial, and Atticus brings out the fact that the alleged victim, Mayella Ewell, has flirted with and lured Tom into her home, and since no one took her to a doctor, there is no proof that a sexual assault occurred. Tom insists that none did. But even though Jem is sure they’ve won the case, the jury returns a guilty verdict.

Though the verdict went the Ewell’s way, Mr. Ewell is angry with Atticus for “destroying his credibility” and threatens to “get” Atticus if it is the last thing he does.

There were many things that stood out to me in this book. One was how Atticus tried to prepare his children for the trouble to come. He didn’t want them to fuss about it nor to think ill of their friends who might say unkind things. When asked why he took the case when the townspeople and even his own relatives think ill of him for it, he says things like he couldn’t live with himself, couldn’t go to church, couldn’t ask his children to obey him if he didn’t. It was the right thing to do, and his conscience would smite him if he didn’t. The children don’t learn until the court day that Atticus was appointed to the case. Scout says it would have saved them many fights if they could have defended him with that piece of information. It says a lot about Atticus that he did not use that fact to defend himself.

Another was how often innocence saw truth. When Scout hears her teacher at the courthouse saying this trial will “teach ’em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves,” she wonders how her teacher can hate Hitler and feel sorry for the Jews in Europe in their classroom and “then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home.” “It’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? I mean have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?” It’s Scout innocently talking with one of her neighbors about his son at school that halts an angry mob, unbeknownst to her at first. It’s Dill who gets upset and sick at the courthouse over how the prosecuting attorney is treating Tom on the stand.

I appreciated how the children’s view of their father changes throughout the book. They love him, but compared to other fathers, he is “old,” doesn’t play football, doesn’t have an interesting job, and reads all the time. Their neighbor, Miss Maudie, helps them understand him a bit better, finding out he is a crack shot helps immensely, and the course of events eventually helps them to see him for the man that he is.

One of the most poignant parts of the book for me was when Scout was helping her Aunt Alexandra (who throughout the book tries to make Scout into a lady) at a ladies’ missionary meeting. There are poor examples of womanhood, such as when some of the women say embarrassing things to Scout for a laugh and when others gossip or others laud the heart of missionaries in other countries but fail to acknowledge needs in their own county. When Atticus comes in with bad news about Tom and asks his colored cook to go with him to Tom’s wife, Scout, Miss Maudie, and Scout are shaken. But they don’t want to let the ladies know what has happened, so they put on a brave face and go back out and serve refreshments. Aunt Alexandra smiles at Scout, who thinks to herself, “If Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.” That contrast between real womanhood and the silliness of so many, and Scout’s realization of it, just spoke volumes to me.

So what does a mockingbird have to do with all of this? When the children are given air rifles one Christmas, Atticus tells them they can “shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Miss Maudie explains to Scout that mockingbirds don’t do people any harm, but they “sing their hearts out for us.” This metaphor of it being a sin to harm the innocent comes up throughout the book, especially beautifully near the end when Scout realizes its meaning and applies it to Boo Radley as well.

Miss Maudie tells the children after the trial,  “Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like this…We’re making a step – it’s just a baby step, but it’s a step.” Though the battle in this case was lost, there was much that happened that made it a baby step in the right direction. Race relations in this country are still not what they should be, but they’re a far cry from what they were in this time period, mostly due to individual steps along the way, some large and some small. I don’t know if massive cultural changes can be made by a revolution: I think they often come through slow change, through individual men and women standing up and doing the right thing within their sphere of influence.

Some quotes that especially stood out:

Atticus to Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Miss Maudie (a neighbor) to Scout: “Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is in the public streets.”

Scout: “Atticus, are we going to win it?”

“No, Honey.”

“Then, why – “

“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

When Atticus tries to explain to Scout that “n-lover” is a term that “ignorant, trashy people use,” she ask, “You’re not rely one, then, are you?” He replies, “I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody.”

When Scout and Jem are asked to visit the crusty Mrs. DuBose, unaware that in her dying days she is trying to come out of a morphine addiction brought on my treatment of her illness: “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

Miss Maudie to the children: “There are some men in this world who are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them…We’re so rarely called upon to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.”

Miss Maudie to Aunt Alexandra: “Whether Maycomb knows it or not, we’re paying the highest tribute we can pay a man. We trust him to do right…The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us.”

When Scout comments that a boy who was thought to have done certain misdeeds hadn’t and was actually “real nice,” Atticus replies: “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

I think Lee is an excellent author. There is so much that she brought out so well that I can’t explain or portray any more than I have. It is too bad she only wrote the one book.

The only thing that mars the book is a smattering of bad language – some “damns” and “hells” and a couple of instances of taking God’s name in vain. I am not shocked by them because I grew up in an environment where that kind of talk was common, but my family now doesn’t use that kind of language, and I usually avoid books with it. I don’t like to feed them into my brain. I had forgotten they were in this book. I always struggle with whether to recommend a book that is a great read in every way except this. That is up to the individual reader.

I first read this book in 2008, and I purposely didn’t read that review until I got done with this one. It was interesting to see what things stood out to me both times.

I’m thankful that Annette chose this book for Carrie’s  book club. I listened to the audiobook ably narrated by Sissy Spacek, and her Southern accent really added to the feel of the story.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

16 thoughts on “Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

  1. Hi Barbara, I am only a newcomer to your posts, but enjoy reading them immensely. i wonder how you have time to read (and take in) so many books! I found you when i googled Isobele Kuhn, the author of books that blessed me as i read them aloud to my 88 year old mother when she visited recently. you had read her books too and had commented on them. have you written a book yourself?

    • Hi Annette. No, I haven’t written a book. I have thought about it, but I don’t know if this is the right time of life – there seems to be too many other things going on or other responsibilities right now.

      I get a lot of reading done in any waiting time. I don’t usually have a lot of time all at one time to do a lot of reading in one sitting, but in bits and pieces here and there a lot of ground can be covered.

      I actually listened to this one via audiobook this time, referring back to the Kindle version occasionally – I forgot to mention that but will go back and edit it in. That has greatly increased the amount of books I can go through.

  2. Love, love, love TKAM. I teach it every year because the teens in my southern town need to know what life was like back then – and every year they say “We had no idea!” Lee’s plot, fleshed out with her deep characterizations, is gripping. Thanks for the review.

  3. Oh, and that illustration you used of the cat – I saw and then “shared” it on FB – and a lot of former students saw it, and commented that not only was the illustration funny, but it brought back memories of the book and how much they got out of it.

  4. Barbara, I just finished reading it yesterday. I’m still processing it (though I’ve read it more than a dozen times). I have many of those same passages marked to comment upon or to quote. You brought out some excellent points. Thank you for reading this month!

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