To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

TKMWhy this book: I read this book 50 years ago, when I was 13 years old, just a few years after it came out – and I remember that it made quite an impression on me.   My reading group selected Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee’s “new” release for our next book, and I saw this as an opportunity to do what I’ve been meaning to do for quite some time – re-read To Kill a Mockingbird (which I’ll refer to as “TKM”) which I hope will help set up a greater appreciation of Go Set a Watchman.

My impressions: I loved re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird.  While I loved it for many of the same reasons as the first time I read it, the perspective of age and experience helped me to appreciate it more and in a different way.   Of course I knew the story – I remembered it from the first time I read it, and I’ve seen the excellent movie several times.   This time I focused on Harper Lee’s writing – how she tells the story, how she depicts and develops her characters, how she describes life in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. To me, her story and her writing are sincere and authentic. And how could you not like Scout – precocious, uninhibited, free-spirited, and trying so hard to understand grown-ups and to be more grown-up than she was.

As I read TKM, I was reminded of two other books I’ve recently read: Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s story told through his eyes as a child, of the crazy adult world he experienced in depression era Ireland. Angela’s Ashes and TKM are striking in how both evoke the innocence and practical perspective, as well as the idealism of childhood, and we see how ridiculous some of what adults accept as normal, appears to a child. Frank McCourt and Harper Lee were masters at helping us return to the innocence and honesty of that childhood perspective.

The other book was An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood by Jimmy Carter. In that book, Jimmy Carter tells of growing up in rural Georgia during the same period a TKM takes place. I recall how he experienced shock and anger upon realizing that his black playmates from out on the farm couldn’t join him in activities in town. It just didn’t make sense to him, and he struggled to understand this injustice, eventually being forced to accommodate himself to the reality of that place and time – as Scout and Jem had to do in  TKM.

What I didn’t recall from my first reading or the movie, was how so much of the book is about the maturing of Scout’s older brother Jem. Scout is young, precocious and outgoing; Jem is about six years older, moving into his teenage years and a thoughtful introvert. We see through Scout’s eyes how Jem is struggling to create his own identity, to live up to the values and example of Atticus, and to be respected as an adult.  Scout truly admires him for that, all the while fighting for respect and recognition from her older brother.  Jem is truly one of the more interesting characters in the book and in some sense, the book is as much a coming of age book about Jem as it is about Scout.

The other aspect of the book that I loved was how Harper Lee used Scout’s perspective on the colorful cast of characters who lived there to evoke an image of life in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama.   It reminded me of how Steinbeck painted the picture of depression era Monterey in Cannery Row by introducing us to one unusual and colorful character after another. In TKM, we get to know an amazing list of eccentric and interesting people who made up the mosaic of Maycomb:  Calpurnia, the wise and highly respected black housekeeper and surrogate mother to Scout and Jem; Dolphus Raymond who lived with a black woman down by the river, and feigned alcoholism so that people wouldn’t judge him too harshly for that other transgression; Dill, Jem’s and Scout’s creative and clever summer playmate, who Scout considered to be her fiance – whatever that meant; Mrs Dubose, the grouchy old woman down the street who seemed to have no good sides, until after she died, when Atticus explained how she died with amazing courage; Sheriff Heck Tate, who at the end of the book chose to lie and violate his professional duty for a greater good, but who was not so courageous when it came to possibly protecting a black man; Aunt Alexandra, who Harper Lee set up to represent the worst of Maycomb’s “High Society,” but who we came to respect by the end of the book; and Miss Maudie, one of the few adults who treated Scout and Jem with respect and seemed to share their fundamental values.  Like Atticus – Miss Maudie always tried to see the good side of people. And of course there were Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, and Bob and Mayella Ewell, each of whom has become an iconic and tragic figure in the landscape of modern American literature.  These are some of the characters who Harper Lee uses to paint her compelling picture of the seemingly idyllic and peaceful life in small-town Maycomb, Alabama, built upon an unjust social structure of class, bigotry and prejudice.

Atticus Finch is the moral centerpiece of the book – and the way Harper Lee describes his generosity of spirit, his wisdom, and even his innocence in the face of evil, makes him an idealized and well known figure to all of us – perhaps in part because Gregory Peck plays him so well in the movie. He not only represents an ideal of fatherhood, but also of courage, justice and integrity in America.

I was inspired AGAIN by this simple but beautifully told story, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who thinks they don’t need to read it again, because they know the story. The story is tragic and wonderful at the same time.  This time, I was able to savor and better appreciate how she told it.

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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