Harper Lee died on Friday, Feb 19. I found that out while scrolling through my Snapchat stories, and the news headline popped up.
She wrote only one book: To Kill A Mockingbird, which for a very long time was her only book until she published Go Set a Watchman.
But To Kill A Mockingbird was so widely read, devoured and adored that it became a major literary success. Schools were using it as part of their literature program, and that included my school which was how I found out about this book.
I thought it was a really hard book to understand at first, but the more I delved into the world of Scout and Jem, the more I really started to feel for the characters of Maycomb County.
I thought about it, I read more of it, and I started living in the story, just like the other characters.
1) Racial vilification
There are many movies, shows and other media that depict the general behaviour of Caucasians against African Americans during the colonial era and slave era. Billie Holiday’s haunting song Strange Fruit is just one example, depicting the unfair lynching of African Americans.
But To Kill a Mockingbird was seen through the eyes of a young child just barely beginning to understand the racial inequalities that existed in the society they lived in.
To a child, she was able to tell right from wrong. But for the other adults around her, they were influenced by the hierarchy of each community: white trash were still considered better than black people. The words of 2 white people (no matter how jumbled their stories were and how obvious their lies became) were considered better than the word of 1 black person.
2) In the secret courts of men’s hearts
How could this be so, I wondered, as I read Mr. Underwood’s editorial. Senseless killing—Tom had been given due process of law to the day of his death; he had been tried openly and convicted by twelve good men and true; my father had fought for him all the way. Then Mr. Underwood’s meaning became clear: Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.
This is an add-on to racial vilification: the mindsets of men. While they may never say it out loud, the jury of white people (and the society of white folks) were prejudiced against black people.
Despite Atticus’ best efforts in putting up a strong defence for Tom Robinson, the racial bias of society would never have let him walk free.
3) Climb in his skin and walk around in it
It’s a more telling, and rather Hannibal-like gruesome way of the phrase ‘walk in his shoes’, but just as effective in its explanation nonetheless.
The phrase spoken by Atticus to his daughter Scout is his way of explaining to her how we should view someone else’s perspective. How we should consider things from their point of view before criticizing them.
4) Mr Radley and religious fanaticism
Reading about Mr Radley was probably the second most evident time I can ever remember a depiction of religious fanaticism (the first being Frollo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame).
“Ms Stephanie said he was so upright he took the word of God as his only law, and we believed her, because Mr. Radley’s posture was ramrod straight.”
In his mind, anything that would bring pleasure is considered a sin. This is demonstrated in the book that one character (Miss Maudie) should not exhibit her love for gardening, but instead spend that time indoors reading the bible and praying.
“sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of – oh, of your father.” “There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learnt to live in this one.”
And these words describe the devotion of Mr Radley to his religion: it filled his life completely with no room for much else. To him, religion wasn’t a part of what he was, it was exactly what he was made of.
And when Boo Radley’s rowdiness became too much, Mr Radley took it upon himself to punish his child for eternity (I don’t know if it was meant to be for eternity, but considering Scout only saw Boo once and never again, that seems correct).
5) How Jem Finch learnt that bravery comes in many forms
Jem, or Jeremy Finch, was one of my favourite characters. Not because he was perfect (he totally wasn’t) but he exhibited plenty of bravery with his sister.
The bit where he watched his father take up a gun to shoot a mad dog in order to save the community made Jem excited because finally, he could boast to his friends that his father was cool by being a sharpshooter, instead of a boring because he was a lawyer.
But Jem later learns that bravery isn’t about handling a gun, and vice versa, that handling a gun doesn’t automatically mean you’re brave.
He learns that Atticus is brave for choosing to defend a black man in front of the whole town, despite the fact that Atticus knows he wouldn’t win, and he was subjecting himself to the gossip and criticism that everyone else would speak of his family.
He learns that Atticus is brave by accompanying Tom Robinson in the jail cell to protect him from mob lynching, furthermore protecting him without a gun but with words to persuade the mob to disperse.
And finally Jem exhibits bravery by protecting his sister, to the point where he had to wrestle a grown man wielding a knife.
And therein lies the innocent mockingbird, dead. Innocence killed.
Did you enjoy the book as much as I did? Let me know what you felt about the book.