For young Scout Finch life in the 1930's South is pretty simple. She is excited to begin school and enjoying spending her summer playing games with her older brother, Jem, and temporary neighbor, Dill. They love to speculate about Boo Radley, the reclusive man who lives down the street from them, even going so far as sneaking around his house at night in hopes of getting a glimpse of him through the window. For two years, it is an idyllic time for Scout and Jem as they simply enjoy life while slowly learning valuable lessons from their lawyer father Atticus and their neighbors. That is, until the summer that Atticus takes on the case of a black man accused of raping a white woman. During the trial and after, things change for Scout and Jem in ways they never could have imagined, but through it all, they learn what is certain to be one of the most important lessons of their young lives.
I usually prefer to enjoy my reading material rather than having to parse it's deeper meaning, so I can sometimes be rather reluctant to read books that are critically acclaimed and/or considered classics, since they are often difficult to understand. I'd heard so many wonderful things about To Kill a Mockingbird that I finally decided to take a chance on it when it was chosen as a book club read for the GoodReads Readers Against Prejudice and Racism group of which I am a part. I was very pleasantly surprised at what an easy read it was, while at the same time conveying a deep and layered message, not only about prejudice but also about standing up for what's right, that I know will stay with me, probably for the rest of my life. Another astonishing thing about the book to me was the number of lighthearted if not downright funny moments it contained. This is something I never would have expected from a book that tackled such a serious and controversial issue for its time. In my opinion, Harper Lee is an amazing writer, and I was absolutely stunned to discover that To Kill a Mockingbird was the only novel she ever wrote. However, I suppose there's nowhere else to go once you've won the highest honor in the writing world, a Pulitzer Prize, and she certainly made her one shot count in a huge way.
Young Scout Finch is the first-person narrator of the story. She is only about six or seven when it opens, but more than two years pass by as Ms. Lee builds up to the penultimate events of the book, by which time Scout is nine years old. She is a tomboy who's as smart as a whip and a precocious reader. When her first grade teacher told her she had to stop reading because her daddy was teaching her all wrong and first-graders weren't supposed to read, I had to laugh. It was ludicrously funny but also a sad commentary on our educational system. I just loved Scout's enthusiasm for reading. She joked that her brother, Jem, said she was born reading and she couldn't remember a time when she couldn't read. In this way, Scout very much reminded me of myself. I thought it was fascinating how Scout, in her child's mind, thinks of her father as old, decrepit, and thoroughly boring. She doesn't think he has any real skills or has accomplished anything. It was an absolute joy to watch Scout's opinion of Atticus gradually grow and change as she matures and begins to see him in an entirely new light through, not only the big trial, but all the little things he does.
I loved Scout's relationship with her brother. She and Jem fight like siblings often do, but at the same time they were very close. I like how Jem is a little gentleman, always looking out for Scout. It was wonderful how closely he actually watches their father, and subtly emulates him. When their summertime friend and neighbor, Dill, gets in on the action, these three can get into lots of amusing mischief. Seeing the world through these kids eyes was a positively delightful experience. Dill is quite good at creating wild yarns. I just knew he was destined to be a writer someday;-) (for anyone who doesn't know Dill is patterned on Harper Lee's childhood friend and neighbor, Truman Capote). The lessons that the kids learn are deeply touching. Whether it's how they go from being scared of their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley to beginning to understand why he stays away from people; or learning from Mrs. Dubose, the cranky old lady who likes to hurl insults at them, that things aren't always as they seem; or the tough lessons they learned about injustice through Tom Robinson's trial, they are on a constant journey of discovery, both of the world around them and themselves that often brought tears to my eyes.
If I were Scout, I'd think that I had the best dad in the world, but since I'm much, much closer to Atticus's age than Scout's, I'd have to say that he has become my latest literary crush. He is just quite simply an amazing man. Some people think that he's a questionable father who lets his kids run wild, because he doesn't spank them and they have a tendency to speak their mind. To the contrary, I believe he was a man who led by quiet example, and showed his kids how to be good citizens by teaching them to think critically for themselves. I love how Atticus just naturally speaks with "bigger" words and doesn't dumb it down for his children, but instead allows them to ask for clarification if they don't understand something, always answering their questions with complete honesty. That's how I tend to be, and I think kids can learn more that way. Atticus is a very wise man who sees many facets to the world around him. He is a kind, loving, gentle soul who always seems to see the good in people. He's a true gentleman, a brilliant attorney, an honorable and humble man who fights for what's right no matter what. If more men were like Atticus Finch, the world, without a doubt, would be a much better place.
To Kill a Mockingbird is another of those books which sadly, over fifty years after its release, is still found at the top of the ALA's most banned/challenged books list. It does contain some profanities, mostly mild, but a couple of more moderate ones including taking the Lord's name in vain twice. There is also a number of instances where the derogatory "n" word is used for African Americans, but given the time and setting of the book, it never seemed overdone or out of place to me. There is also the mature subject matter of a black man being wrongly accused of raping a white girl, but since it is all told through the eyes of a nine year-old child, everything has a certain air of innocence to it, with nothing ever really being spelled out explicitly. In spite of this potentially objectionable content, I still feel that the book is fully appropriate for high school level students. In my opinion, the positive role model that Atticus presents and the positive messages contained within the book's pages, far outweigh any possible detractors. I personally think it would be an absolute travesty to ban a book as thought-provoking as this one, and in fact, would encourage everyone, teens and up, to read it at least once.
I'm so glad I finally picked up To Kill a Mockingbird. The courtroom scenes were extremely well-written and appear to reflect Ms. Lee's personal experience with the law. Some parts of the story were a little slow at times, but never boring and always worth the wait for something more exciting to happen. Every character and every little side story added flavor, color and depth to this wonderful tale. The message it conveys is a timeless one. It is one of the most, if not the most, affecting book I've ever read centering around the themes of prejudice and racism. To Kill a Mockingbird has without a doubt earned a spot on my keeper shelf and has become a new all-time favorite book for me.
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