I finished Harper Lee’s only published book (for now) a couple of days ago. I enjoyed it. But that’s not worth a blog post, telling you that something good everyone knows is good is good. I’m reminded of the three friends in high school that had not seen Star Wars yet, prompting me to drag them to my house and stage a viewing of the Holy Trilogy. And they, at age 18, provided a new and thought-provoking perspective of the trilogy, i.e. not loving it. Everybody read this book in grade school but me. I can provide the view of someone who didn’t procrastinate reading until the book report due date or didn’t sit through quizzes asking about what costume Scout wore that killed the tension of certain scenes with her. Does To Kill a Mockingbird deserve to be mandatory school reading?
Some people, according to banned book lists, answer ‘no’ to that question. Now I assume you’re a smart reader and need no preaching about how supporters of banning books never lost their baby teeth and will suffer intense pain whenever they bite into something harder than porridge. And we’ll laugh at them for it, the pernicious poopyheads. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses similar language (ok, they only share one word), and it also appears on such lists. But I’ve never seen an edition of To Kill A Mockingbird where the n-word is censored, whereas you can find that for good ol’ Huck Finn. Why not? Both stories use the word to paint a racially insensitive America, and end up with some pretty obvious anti-racism messages.
A couple theories. 1. People want to read Huck Finn more than Mockingbird. I enjoy it more myself, though that’s not a knock on Lee by any means. No one would show a TV edit of Pulp Fiction if no one found anything good about the original. Most people vote Twain higher than Lee in best book lists anyways. But that theory takes second-string pitcher to my main theory: 2. The word ‘nigger’ is integral to the plot of TKAM way beyond TAOHF. The entire conclusion to the court case that envelopes the ongoing Scout-growing-up story hinges on how racist the jury and the society of Maycomb is. This tale can only function in a prejudiced world. With Huck Finn, you only need a few characters to be bigots and people will still get from A to B plotwise. Racism is a great seasoning for Huck Finn, but it’s a starchy side dish for Mockingbird that excellently compliments the main course (note to self: stop writing these posts before breakfast). To erase the word ‘nigger’ from To Kill A Mockingbird is to erase the word ‘mutant’ from X-Men.
But enough about what other people think- what do I think about this book. Well, I can tell you that it’s depressingly relevant, that’s for sure. Just like in today’s towns, many residents of Maycomb remind us right quick how not racist they are and how blacks are too demanding for special treatment and we’re better than those German blokes and slavery was 60 years ago you guys! In that respect, out of many, this story deserves to be read at a young age. Another reason is that you need to be a particularly dumb 8th grader to not get who the mockingbird is. Going into this, I’d heard so many jokes about tequila and about how this isn’t a manual that I expected the reason behind the title to be deep and meaningful. Spoilers: it’s black people. There’s one scene where Scout and Jem attend an all-black church, where the congregation can only afford one songbook. So the preacher says a verse, and the entire congregation repeats it. Now that’s a decent way to establish the reason for the title. The other discussions about mockingbirds (save the precedent-establishing “it’s a sin” one) serve only as opportunities for teachers to ask their students “Do you get it yet!?” For an otherwise quiet story, this constant choice sticks out.
And now it’s time for the fun part: what in the book doesn’t work? The conclusion to Scout’s womanhood arc, for one. In another universe, I may have liked it. Scout’s a tomboy, see, running about and getting in trouble and being told to act like a lady. Jem and Dill consistently tell her “you’re a girl, you wouldn’t understand,” and it peeves her right off quite rightly. She stumbles into more trouble as the book goes on, and she learns how dark both her world and the social systems around her are. Atticus crashes a lunch meeting between Scout and the women of the book to tell them about Robinson’s death. Somehow, this prompts Scout to shape up and think “…if Aunty (Alexandria) could be a lady at a time like this, so can I.” That’s it. Scout’s gender role arc ends with her giving in to an outdated social system. Don’t mistake this objection for a purely feminist PC complaint. A story about a tomboy discovering some good in femininity… there’s an interesting tale in there about finding identity in unlikely places. If you, or any of your characters, like something, enjoy it, don’t let others tell you that it’s wrong. BUT. This entire book conveys how stupid people act when following the crowd for treating/characterizing others, be it blacks or Boo. Scout knows about this folly at the end, and jumps to follow a crowd to treat and characterize herself under illogical and harmful standards. What makes ladyhood worth striving for in this book? It only rears its dainty head to keep Scout down. She should stick to her slingshots, is what I’m saying. If I were inclined to be generous (and I am- the simple narration serves the story exceedingly well, and balances several character arcs without giving predominance to anyone but Scout), I’d argue that she’s finding comfort in sisterhood, the same way the blacks in Maycomb bond so as not to break. And if I had to write Scout’s arc, I’d guard it from falling anvils of a gurl-power message. I still question how the most important aspect of a socially aware and conscious book ended like this.
I read To Kill A Mockingbird at the wrong time. It presents an engaging and poignant read for everyone, but I can’t imagine calling it life-changing unless I read it at age 14 or in 1960. All the more reason to keep the diseased fingers of moral guardians off of this and inside a meat grinder. Give it a reread and tell me in the comments if it still warms and chills like it used to. Although watch out if you read it after losing a father figure, because you’ll otherwise drench the book in so much watery salt that swordfish will infest it. That’s probably why this book resonates at such a young age- Atticus is the perfect father. He’s brave, calm, human, and most of all, respectful to those on different social standings to him. My parents embody wonderfulness, and I still want someone like Mr. Finch in my life. He’s presented with no description for a few chapters at the beginning, allowing him to evolve from an unapproachable being in Scout’s life to a loving and caring and kind of nerdy rock of a man when everything in our protagonist’s life is changing. I’ve been told Gregory Peck portrays him like an expert thespian, but I can tell you right now that most of that beauty comes from the book.
To Kill A Mockingbird should be read in schools for the same reason you plant a seed in the spring- timing is everything.