- What: To Kill a Mockingbird
- Who: Harper Lee
- Pages: 376, small soft cover
- Genre: Classic literature
- Published: 1960
- The lit: of 5 flames
To Kill a Mockingbird is the first book reviewed in a new Big Little Literature series, Storied, a personal initiative to read the greatest books in American literature.
PBS’ The Great American Read had me regretting never experiencing so many magical pieces of American literature. One of those was not only so far ahead of its time but is also — and sadly — still relevant in today’s society. To Kill a Mockingbird took me back to being eight years old, the same age as its main character, Scout, and on a deeper level, it was a reminder that we still have a long way to go in accepting others and being more loving. It also proved that genuine souls are around us everywhere we go. They’re just too humble to announce it.
“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.” — To Kill a Mockingbird
Ironically, I bought Harper Lee’s classic the same day I bought Emily Giffin’s latest, All We Ever Wanted, whose character Finch gives the original a bad rap. Fortunately for me, reading To Kill a Mockingbird elevated the name.
Finch was named after Atticus Finch, the father in To Kill a Mockingbird. Often viewed as the moral pillar in literature, Atticus is a lawyer in a small Alabama town who represents a black man wrongly accused of a crime. Atticus takes on the case even though he knows he will likely lose and that it will cause problems for him and his children, Scout and Jem. Winning isn’t the only thing that matters for Atticus; it’s about standing up for what’s right and setting a good example.
A few years older than his sister, Jem is at the apex of young adulthood. His emotions are heightened, and his father’s case influences in him strong convictions about justice. Scout, a wicked smart tomboy, just loves playing with her brother. Scout’s not old enough to understand the complexities of the world; however, because the story is told through her viewpoint, her childlike innocence has us too questioning why we can’t all get along and possess human decency. At the end of the day, why can’t life be that simple?
“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” — To Kill a Mockingbird
These principles don’t just stem from the innocence and naivety of youth; Atticus instilled them in his children. Despite all the ugliness surrounding the family and innate persecution, he wants his children to grow up differently than their peers and to live by certain morals. His words and beliefs speak volumes about the author and her courage to write about them in the tumultuous ’60s, when the book debuted. This novel somehow touches on racism, classism, social expectations, geographic differences, the implications of being an introvert, and what it means to grow up in the middle of it all.
I had always heard how groundbreaking To Kill a Mockingbird was, but I didn’t realize how timeless it would be too. To have read it back then would have been powerful, but to read it in 2018 touched me on a different level. Rather than feeling like the book was ahead of its time, which it was 60 years ago, I felt sad that it didn’t feel outdated. Sure, we now have air conditioning and heat in our homes and don’t have to walk everywhere we go, but to think the same issues that To Kill a Mockingbird addresses don’t still exist would make you the most naive character in the book. Yes, progress is progress, but how far have we actually come since the time when this book takes place? It’s as if Harper Lee could see into the future and realize humans in 2018 needed a story that could still inspire action and empathy after all this time.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” — To Kill a Mockingbird
While the heavy stuff is significant, I loved this book for a much less serious reason: the nostalgia it gave me. About halfway through the book, Jem is punished for taking his anger out on an old neighbor who lives nearby, and he must read to her in the afternoons. Scout is devastated because she feels Atticus is taking him away from her. “Jem is all I have,” she says.
I was Scout, more or less, when I was eight years old and really loved playing outside with my siblings. They were just so smart and fun and good at everything they did. One of our favorite things to do was build these forts — our “hideouts” — using old Christmas trees. My brother and I would carry them to a certain place in the woods, always with a big tree as the base, and fill in the holes with whatever sticks and bushes we could find. (My sister became too cool for us by this point. I’m not being petty; she actually was too cool). Then every time we’d play outside and hear a car come down the road, we’d barrel into the woods and seek cover in our hideout. One time it actually did save us from the annoying kid up the street who wanted to play.
Building hideouts and playing golf and baseball in our front yard (Dad’s tried for years to grow grass on “home plate,” but it’ll never happen) were some of my fondest childhood memories, and I thought I was so special because my older brother wanted to hang out with me. Those feelings were very much akin to how Scout felt about her brother, and I connected with the bond the two of them shared.
I’m not sure how Harper Lee so accurately captured those emotions and thoughts that an eight year old can feel and think. I don’t know how Harper Lee managed to write a timeless book about the core of human existence that would still be applicable 60 years later, and I don’t know if she set out to write one of the most important and touching books of all time. She did all of these things though, and I’m happy I finally see what all this hype is about and that it’s 100% warranted.
“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” — To Kill a Mockingbird