Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD 2To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee and published in 1960. I read the paperback Grand Central Publishing version.

I read this book, right now, for all the obvious reasons. It is a classic and won the Pulitzer Prize, but I could barely remember anything about my high school reading of it. (It’s also very likely that I didn’t even finish it). Harper Lee published her new book–the first in over 50 years–which is a sort of sequel to To Kill and Mockingbird a couple weeks back, and I would like to read it. I have a Kindle copy that I will be starting tomorrow on an all-day car trip. I have written more than one blog about the Harper Lee news and new book.

Now, I really didn’t have much in the way of expectation when I began reading this book. From what feelings I recall from high school, it just “wasn’t my type.” Plus, courtroom drama? (I’ll get to that more in a sec.) Then again, everyone seems to love this book, as evidenced by the literary orgy that happened a few years ago at the 50th anniversary of its publication. It truly is a classic.

I’m going to start with the little that I have to say negative about this book, and get it over with. It’s a little preachy. Sure, we all nod our heads as Atticus spouts something true and honest, but sometimes I felt the preachiness. If you don’t know what I mean, see the quotes below. We don’t just see the Finches being model citizens and moral examples, we hear/read the father (and other characters, like Miss Maudie and Reverend Sykes) telling Scout and Jem, and therefore us, the things they (and we) need to know to grow up straight. When Harper Lee said, “I already said everything I needed to say,” I long questioned how talent like hers could dry up so quickly (both in application and in will). I now recognize this statement as more of a moral one, and while what she has said is incredibly important, I would have liked more doing, less saying. (Then again, I would have missed Atticus’ one-liners and the gentler side of the adult world.)

I also found the plot to be a little slow? Or maybe just disjointed. I was like all interested in Boo Radley, and then I suddenly realized I was knee-deep in Tom Robinson with no Boo to be seen for like 100 pages. The story often follows a summer-to-summer routine, then on page 340, we’re all of a sudden in a Halloween story. While the whole thing definitely comes full circle and ties up in its way, I was distracted by not knowing what I was looking for next or by feeling like I was being pulled in two or three different directions. Perhaps if they had been weaved together a little more? By the end, I was like, “Mrs. Dubose? Was that a short story I read some time?”

But that’s all I can possibly complain about with this book.

It is written so cleanly, and that is one of the highest compliments I can pay to a piece of writing. I’m not sure there is much I can even expound on here. The writing is incredibly clean. It seldom distracts or loses you. And even though Lee is writing from a different time and place and a very difference perspective, you never lose pace with her. She’s not being flowery, but she is both lyrical and beautiful in her expression while also being sparse.

She is also a master at portraying a time and a place. It happens to be a time and place that she experienced, so I have no idea how she would write portraying more fantastical things, but she certainly yanks the reader into the world of Macomb County, Alabama in the 1930s and plops you into the body and school desk of Jean Louise. The spell is complete, and you never leave the time or place, which you see so clearly that you also taste it, feel it, and hear it.

And speaking of the fine touch and the enchantment of great writing, the characters are extremely well-drawn. With only a few gestures and words, the reader gets a very full impression of one of the about twenty characters in the book. While Lee’s characters are a little too good-or-bad for me, I really felt I was walking among complex people, both peculiar and universal at the same time (which we all are) and both in the world of a child and the adult world. (As a side note: I have heard it said that authors should never write in dialect. However, there are many exceptions to this rule, and Mockingbird is easily one of them. The dialect only acts to enhance the story, not distract.) The interaction between children and adults is so correct and subtle, I have hardly ever seen it written so well.

I really thought I would be bored with the court scenes, and dreaded coming up on them. However–and I’m not at all sure how she did it–I was not bored in the least. Even when reading long speeches, I felt riveted and wanted to keep reading. In fact, the only thing that bored me from time to time was the town and county history. I’m not saying she should have cut it, exactly, but it did make me zone out, or set the book down and finally nod off for the night.

Let’s be honest: what Lee has said in To Kill a Mockingbird is very important. And not just in a morally-forward-thinking (for the time) way (or in just racial relations, but also in coming-of-age and womanhood among other things), but as an historical document. Historical?, you ask. Yes. I believe in the truth and honesty of some fiction, and this book captures the truth and honesty of a particular history better than any textbook. And I also believe that we don’t glaze over or sweep away history, but learn from it through a humility to its authenticity (as best as we can, anyhow). I’m sure that this book can’t be read by some people without a certain amount of pain. I’m just saying that if you want to learn from the American South in the early twentieth century (and apply it to any given time or situation), this is a great place from which to move forward.

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD MOVIEMOVIES

There is, of course, a very famous and highly lauded film from 1963, starring Gregory Peck. Currently, it’s available for $3 as a rental from iTunes, so I intend to check it out but I want to read Go Set a Watchman first. I just would prefer not to put any actor’s faces in my head before I continue with the Scout and Atticus I have created in my imagination. I will review it later.

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QUOTES

“That boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him, you hear?” (p32).

“…anybody sets foot in this house’s yo’ comp’ny, and don’t you let me catch you remarkin’ on their ways like you was so high and mighty!” (p33).

“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts” (p79).

“There are no clearly defined seasons in South Alabama; summer drifts into autumn, and autumn is sometimes never followed by winter, but turns into days-old spring that melts into summer again” (p79).

“”s what everybody at school says.’ / ‘From now on it’ll be everybody less one–‘” (p99).

“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win” (p101).

“Had I ever harbored the mystical notions about mountains that seem to obsess lawyers and judges, Aunt Alexandra would have been analogous to Mount Everest: through-out my early life, she was cold and there” (p103).

“She hurt my feelings and set my teeth permanently on edge, but when I asked Atticus about it, he said there were already enough sunbeams in the family and to go about my business, he didn’t mind me much the way I was” (p109).

“When stalking one’s prey, it is best to take one’s time. Say nothing, and as sure as eggs he will become curious and emerge” (p110).

“…baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you” (p145).

“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” (p149).

“…both kept in an unhealthy state of tidiness” (p169).

“…one must lie under certain circumstances and at all times when one can’t do anything about them” (p171).

“Aunty had a way of declaring What Is Best For The Family, and I suppose her coming to live with us was in that category” (p171).

“Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was” (p173).

“Through my tears I saw Jem standing in a similar pool of isolation, his head cocked to one side” (p178).

“He could add and subtract faster than lightning, but he preferred his own twilight world, a world where babies slept, waking to be gathered like morning lilies” (p12).

“He says as far as he can trace back the Finches we ain’t, but for all he knows we mighta come straight out of Ethiopia durin’ the Old Testament” (p216).

“All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbor was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white” (p229).

“You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women–black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men” (p273).

“We know that all men are not created equal in the sense some people wold have us believe… and in our courts all men are created equal” (p274).

“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it–seems that only children weep” (p285).

“‘Tellin’ the truth’s not cynical, is it?’ / ‘The way you tell it, it is'” (p287).

“…can’t any Christian judges an’ lawyers make up for heathen juries” (p289).

“He told me havin’ a gun around’s an invitation to somebody to shoot you” (p292).

“You couldn’t, but they could and did …. The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box” (p295).

“Atticus told me one time that most of this Old Family stuff’s a foolishness because everybody’s family’s just as old as everybody else’s” (p303).

“Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folk. Folks” (p304).

“There was no doubt about it, I must soon enter this world, where on its surface fragrant ladies rocked slowly, fanned gently, and drank cool water. But I was more at home in my father’s world” (p313).

“People up there set ’em free, but you don’t see ’em settin’ at the table with ’em” (p313).

“…the handful of people with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I” (p316).

“Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home–” (p331).

“Atticus said that Jem was trying hard to forget something, but what he was really doing was storing it away for awhile, until enough time passed” (p331).

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