Monday, April 23, 2007

Booklog, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee
Harper Perennial Modern Classics Trade Paperback, 323 pages

A few days ago, I wrote a booklog review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, in which I basically said that it was a fairly simple "good" book, with surface-level allusions that would make it easy to teach to teenagers. I didn't mention it at the time, but I was mentally connecting McCarthy's book to To Kill a Mockinbird, as my memory of the book (and the movie of the same name) was that of a basically simple, straightforward pair of stories that connected only in the most spurious ways.

Well, I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Reapproaching the novel as an adult, I was amazed at the overall quality of the writing, at how structured and (at times) wickedly satirical Lee's voice in the novel is. Teaching it to every ninth grader in America is actually a disservice to the book -- 14 year olds just really don't understand this book, and the movie (good as it is) only aids the confusion.

In case you're one of the half-dozen people in North America who's never read it, let me give you a synopsis. Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout) narrates the story of how her older brother Jem broke his arm when they were both small children in small-town southern Alabama around 1932. In order to tell the story, she starts by telling about Boo Radley, the adult man who lives with his mother and father next door and who hasn't been seen in about twenty years, and about her lawyer father Atticus Finch's unsuccessful defense of an African-American man named Tom Robinson, who is on trial for his life after being accused of raping a poor white girl. The novel is basically disjointed, spending about half of its time on the idyllic childhood of Scout, her brother, and their friend Dill who visits during the summers, and the other half on coutroom theatrics involving a racist jury putting an innocent black man to death, despite the clear moral and legal voice of Atticus.

Except that the version I gave above is the way people remember the story later on. At least, that's basically the way I remember it, and it's basically the way the film version goes. But in reality, Lee's achievement is much deeper than a simple morality play set in rural Alabama -- her fictional Maycomb county is an absolute delight, filled with saints and sinners (who are not always on the side of the fence we think they're on, and who sometimes don't seem to know there's a fence at all) going about elaborately controlled social lives and relating to one another in a variety of subtly interconnected ways.

Who remembers years after their reading that there's a Hitler reference late in the novel? Or that Scout's second-grade teacher is almost assuredly Jewish, and has a similar prejudice against "Negroes" that the Protestant ladies surrounding her do? Or that Scout's Aunt Alexandria, Atticus's sister, is such an effective tool of what in a later era would be called patriarchy, determined to make a "lady" out of the tomboyish Scout?

Who at fourteen would realize how special Atticus's childrearing methods really are? His small children call him by his first name, he is generally opposed to violence but buys them air-rifles anyway, never talks down to his children and even taught Scout to read the newspaper so early that she considers it as natural as breathing. Even by the hopefully more-enlightened standards of the early twenty-first century, Atticus's parenting comes across as revolutionary and progessive in all the right ways, with little of the baggage of his times -- how radical must it have seemed in 1960, when the book was published, or in the 1930s, when Lee herself was being raised? (Atticus is based on Lee's own father, who was a lawyer who tried a similar case during her childhood.)

Much is made of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, a "nonfiction novel" which took scandalous events and transformed them through the devices of fiction into great drama. Since Capote was a dear friend of Lee's, and in fact was the inspiration for the character of Dill, it's suggested by many that Capote helped to shape the not-quite-fictional nature of Mockingbird, but given the adroitness of Lee's voice here, I'm not entirely sure it wasn't the other way around. Lee is always in clear command of her narrative voice, and while the meaning of certain sequences may not always be clear on a first reading, the overall structure is impeccable -- every word and every moment has its place in the scheme of the novel.

In short, this is a masterpiece. It's odd to think of one of the most popular books in the English language as overlooked, but I think it's clear that much of the novel goes over the heads of the teenagers who are assigned to read it. If you haven't read it since high school, you haven't read it: go check it out of the library or buy a copy and read it again. It's an utterly amazing book, and it's a tragedy that Lee never wrote anything else after it. The memory of this rereading of her masterwork will remain in my mind for a long time.

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