I never read this book at school – I remember Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men but this one seems to have passed me by. I’m pleased to have finally read what must be one of the most universally loved novels of the 20th century. I expected it to feel like a “should read” type of book and to be honest it did a bit but at the same time it has such an important message that this doesn’t really matter. I think it deserves its status.
The central message of the book is about being a good person in the face of adversity, doing the right thing regardless of what is being done to you. This book is about various forms of prejudice, especially racism.
The setting is Maycomb, a fictional town in Alabama, during the depression years of the 1930’s. Maycomb is a place where not a lot happens and not a lot changes including people’s attitudes and prejudices. Times are lean and there is not a lot to spare but people stick together and get by.
The story is narrated by Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, recalled at a later date but written as seen through her then 8 year old eyes. She lives with her brother “Jem” and their father Atticus. Atticus is a multi-layered character – a father, widower, lawyer, but most of all he is a good man – the moral hero of the story. With the help of the children’s coloured housekeeper Calpurnia, he is attempting to raise his children well.
The first part of the book gently introduces us to life in Maycomb. Scout and Jem look forward to the long hot summers and the arrival of “Dill” who spends each summer staying with his aunt, their neighbour, ” Miss Rachel”.
“I’m little but I’m old” (Dill – barely 7 years old)
Scout is a curious tomboy who likes to run and climb and create harmless havoc with the boys. One of the children’s main occupations, encouraged by Dill, is to try and get Arthur “Boo” Radley to come out. Boo is a recluse who hasn’t been seen leaving the house for 24 years. The children are fascinated yet terrified of him or more what in their imaginations they think he is. They dare each other to go near his house and gradually become bolder in their attempts to catch sight of him.
We learn that Atticus has been assigned to represent a young Negro man, Tom Robinson who is charged with raping a white girl Mayella Ewell. The white community are outraged to learn that Atticus intends to do a proper job of representing the defendant who denies the charge. Life becomes not quite so carefree for the children as tensions in their community rise.
The second part of the book deals with the buildup to the trial, the trial itself which is very well done and the after effects. This was my favourite part of the book. I also thought the ending was very good.
Since reading this, I have read a little about the author Harper Lee and I am fascinated by the effect her only novel has had on the literary world and the fact that she is in effect a publicity recluse. Also that the story is loosely based on the childhood experiences of Lee although she has said it is not autobiographical and that the character “Dill” is probably based on Truman Capote, a friend since childhood.