Saturday, February 23, 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee

I read this book for two reasons. At one point I thought I should read it (I read mostly mysteries and don't read much other fiction).  I bought a copy which sat on my shelf looking at me reproachfully because I never read it. Then I saw the Social Justice Theme Read at Resistance is Futile. To Kill a Mockingbird was a featured book and a group read was planned, so I decided this was my opportunity.

I assume most people are familiar with this novel, and I don't need to discuss its literary merits. Nor do I think I am qualified. The novel was published in 1960. As described at Wikipedia:
It was immediately successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a classic of modern American literature. The plot and characters are loosely based on the author's observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.
Here is an overview, from the Amazon.com review:
Set in the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird follows three years in the life of 8-year-old Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus--three years punctuated by the arrest and eventual trial of a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Though her story explores big themes, Harper Lee chooses to tell it through the eyes of a child. The result is a tough and tender novel of race, class, justice, and the pain of growing up.

Like the slow-moving occupants of her fictional town, Lee takes her time getting to the heart of her tale; we first meet the Finches the summer before Scout's first year at school. She, her brother, and Dill Harris, a boy who spends the summers with his aunt in Maycomb, while away the hours reenacting scenes from Dracula and plotting ways to get a peek at the town bogeyman, Boo Radley. At first the circumstances surrounding the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell, the daughter of a drunk and violent white farmer, barely penetrate the children's consciousness. Then Atticus is called on to defend the accused, Tom Robinson, and soon Scout and Jem find themselves caught up in events beyond their understanding.
Not every reader loves To Kill a Mockingbird, but it has been praised by many over the years and hailed as a great novel. I don't remember if I read it in my youth. Or even if I saw the movie. But I knew the basic story before reading it, so there is a good chance that I did one or the other.

I cannot say I enjoyed reading this book. It feels too real, too personal.  I did not grow up in a small town in Southern Alabama in the 1930's. I did grow up in a large city in Alabama in the middle of the state in the 1950's. The experience was close enough, and I don't really like being reminded of it.
 
I read two reviews at Goodreads that mention (in a lot of detail) the reviewers' relationships with their fathers. I think this book does lead one to ponder such things. In some ways, my father was a lot like Atticus. Atticus was a lawyer; my father was a shipping clerk. But they both struggled to support their families. Atticus did not hunt and he did not like guns. My father hunted when he was young and loved guns all his life. But my father was a family man; his primary goal in life was to care for and to provide for his family. We had little money, but my mother did not work outside of the home until I was in college. And he did share Atticus' attitudes about race and equality; he was pro-integration in Alabama's schools when that was a very unpopular attitude in the South. Thus I grew up naively thinking that most people believed in equality for all skin colors, and was shocked to find out differently in my teens.

I think this is a good book, and very beautifully written. It is definitely a book I recommend. Even if a reader does find faults in it, and there are some, it is still worth reading. There is more to this book than just the theme of racial intolerance and injustice. It gives a realistic picture of small town Alabama in the Depression years.

If you are looking for a book on social injustice and the civil rights movement in the southern states, I recommend There Goes My Everything by Jason Sokol. I read that book several years ago and it was also very painful to read. This description is from the dust jacket:
There Goes My Everything traces the origins of the civil rights struggle from World War II, when some black and white American soldiers lived and fought side by side overseas (leading them to question Jim Crow at home), to the beginnings of change in the 1950s and the flared tensions of the 1960s, into the 1970s, when strongholds of white rule suddenly found themselves overtaken by rising black political power. Through it all, Sokol resists the easy categorization of whites caught in the torrent of change; rather, he gives us nuanced portraits of people resisting, embracing, and questioning the social revolution taking place around them.
Various views of To Kill a Mockingbird that I found interesting:
I am looking forward to watching the movie soon. I want to compare and contrast, and see how the various players are depicted. And I am looking forward to watching all the extras on the DVD copy that we have had around for a while.

21 comments:

  1. Tracy, I have read the book and seen the movie and liked both. I have a hard copy of this book on my shelf but for some inexplicable reason I have never re-read it. I'm sure you'll enjoy watching Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch.

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    1. It is a good book, Prashant, but I don't think I will read it again. I will donate it to the book sale and let some lucky reader have access to an inexpensive copy of the book.

      The movie should be very interesting. I do admire Gregory Peck and expect to like it a lot.

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  2. Tracy - Thanks for the reminder of this groundbreaking book. Perfect? No. But it had such a powerful effect and has so many fine points to it. I'm glad you liked it and I do recommend the film.

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    1. I am glad I finally read it (again?). We have had the DVD (unwatched) for so long but I am glad I got to the book first. I think I have commented to you before that I really don't like to read fiction set in the South, although I am trying to remedy that. I did like Dark of the Moon by P. J. Parrish which is set in Mississippi. Read it several years ago and maybe should re-read it. Have you read mysteries by that author?

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  3. I first read the book when I was 12 in 1971 and luckily for me the whole idea of segregation was not something that I ever experienced, it sounded crazy. Where I grew up (in Scotland) it was the Protestant/Catholic bigotry which took the place of racism. I loved the book and the film and Atticus reminded me of my dad too, he was peace loving and of course non hunting, hard working although he was disabled, and no bad-mouthing Catholics was allowed in our house.

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    1. Thanks for that comment. There are many kinds of bigotry, and I was reminded while reading the book how much still exists, all over the world. It was good to hear about your father. Bigotry is really passed along by parents or cultural experiences, so we were lucky to have good examples in our lives.

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  4. TracyK: Will come back to read your review as I also just read the book and will be posting a review this week. I prefer to read other reviews after posting my own review.

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    1. I agree, Bill, I don't like to read reviews (at least not in depth) until I have written mine. I will be looking for your review also.

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  5. Fascinating Tracy to read a review by an adult reader. I did this book for my 'o' levels when I was 16 and enjoyed it very much but I haven't read it since. I can only just remember the plot but I particularly liked the lead character. I still have my heavily annotated version somewhere.

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    1. I had not even realized it was considered a "YA" book until it was mentioned for the Social Justice Theme Read. Although I don't think they had that designation back then. I just read more of the Wikipedia article, which I had only skimmed before I wrote the review. A lot of interesting facts and opinions there that I knew nothing of (or repressed).

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  6. I had resisted reading this book for years because I had a lot of assumptions about what it was about. My wife has long considered it a favorite novel and so for one anniversary I bought her a really nice copy of the book and did her the honor of actually reading it before that day so that we could talk about it. I feel deeply in love with the story. Yes, it was about prejudice and racial equality and it touched on issues that I had, in my stubborness, felt like I had learned about and processed for years and didn't need it to be a part of my entertainment. Not surprisingly I was proven wrong. Not only do I continue to have a lot to learn but To Kill a Mockingbird proves that you can read a book about uncomfortable things and still fall in love with characters, still be told a good and meaningful story, and be left with the knowledge that you are a better person for having spent the time.

    I can see how the book would be a hard thing for some to read, especially if one grew up in the South. I grew up in Nebraska and had very little exposure to African Americans. There was one family in our elementary school and I remember there was one young girl in our whole jr. high and high school system. Things have changed a lot in that respect from when I was a kid but I grew up reading about prejudice but not actively experiencing it because our community was so small that the African American kids were just kids. I saw this more in college and certainly have experienced it much more as an adult, including having to come to the realization that no matter how one grows up there is an innate tendency towards having some prejudicial feelings.

    I'm so glad I experienced this book. Since reading it I've also watched the excellent movie and have seen a stage version as well. I think the story accomplished with me much more than a bunch of dry education about slavery ever did. I felt similar feelings when reading Delia Sherman's book The Freedom Maze last year. Had I not had such a wonderful experience with Mockingbird I'm not sure I would have picked up Freedom Maze and that would have been a loss.

    It is sometimes humbling to realize that even after 40+ years I have a lot to learn, but I'm thankful for good stories that help provide profound learning experiences.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your experience with the book, Carl. Although I was not in Alabama in the Depression, my mother was and lived in a small town and her family did not have much money. Based on things she has said the setting and descriptions of the time seem true to life. And that part I enjoyed the most.

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  7. This is a book I've been feeling the need to read. (I didn't read it in school) Thanks for the review!

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    1. I think you would like it. It is a great story, with many different layers.

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  8. TracyK: Thanks for the review and your personal reactions. I think a book must be good to strike a chord within a reader. I know the feeling of pain and reluctance in reading. I generally avoid reading about custody cases. They remind me too much of the custody cases in which I have represented a mother or a father.

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    1. That is so true. Had the book been more superficial, it probably would have been easier to read for me. Quite possibly, for me, having the protagonist be a child also caused a more personal reaction. But telling the story that way is one of the things that make it a more powerful book.

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  9. There is so much more to this book than the racial element. I am always reminded of the bond between brother and sister that permates the book, the lessons Scout learns from Calpurnia, the poor boy who lives next door for whom Scout has some bigoted thoughts, and the near mystical character of Boo Radley and the odd friendship from a distance he forms with Scout and Jem. I said on Bill's blog that the movie is one of my all time favorites and I've seen it numerous times. It's haunting and eerie, moving and frustrating, nostalgic and beautiful all at once. I think the book transcends its period. Much of what it has to say about human nature echoes what I hold so dear and why I treasure the book and movie so much.

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    1. You are correct, it does have much more than the racial element. The depiction of childhood in the South and the overpowering need to fit in and what it does to people... I also found that uncomfortable. All the while I was enjoying the depiction of the parts of the South that I love, I was still not enjoying reading the book. All of that may not have only happened in the South but it happened to me. And I still feel guilt for not being more active in making changes. It doesn't make sense, but I do.

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  10. It's interesting how books like this can make you compare/contrast with your own life. That means it's a powerful book! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. And for recommending There Goes My Everything. I'll see if I can get to it next year.

    Thanks for participating in the Social Justice Theme Read this February! I really appreciated all the participation despite my own unplanned absence during the month.

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    1. I am glad I finally read (or re-read) this book. It was powerful. Hope things are going well in your life now.

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  11. Oh, wow. This truly sounds like a terrific book. Now I feel guilty for putting it off for another month or two. It's definitely in my list of Books To Read This Year Or Else, but there are a few books I intend to get to first. Please don't disown me. :D

    regards,
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