by Harper Lee
Harper Collins, originally published 1960
336 pages, paperback
Over the next few months, I'll be reviewing some of the novels that are studied in our school. Obviously, any book that is studied in my classroom is, by definition, a "really good read" (though such novels do require the discussion that they receive in a school classroom). For instance, To Kill a Mockingbird is such a really good read that it made a really good movie, which is really unusual. Often, Hollywood ruins a great story; however, the 1962 version starring Gregory Peck is successful, largely because it trusts its source, featuring frequent narration from the novel to set up crucial scenes.
So... why is the novel a great story? To Kill a Mockingbird is what is called by teachers and other academic sorts a bildungsoman. It's not as pretentious as it sounds. Bildung is German for growing, and roman refers to a novel. So, like Old Yeller or Anne of Green Gables, Harper Lee's novel is a novel of growing up. And what a childhood the story's narrator, Scout Finch, has!
As the novel opens in the summer holidays, Scout is a six-year-old growing up during the Depression in the sleepy Alabama town of Maycomb County, with her ten-year-old brother Jem, and their friend Dill, who is small but a little older than Scout, and meets them while he is visiting his aunt for the summer. The three of them do what kids of that age would do when their widowed father Atticus is at work - get in trouble. Mostly, they spend time trying to spy on the neighborhood recluse Boo Radley, but they also incur the anger of their neighbour Mrs. Dubose when Atticus, a lawyer, takes on the case of a black man accused of rape.
Through all their troubles, Jem and Scout learn two great lessons. The first is never to kill a mockingbird - not to harm the harmless. The second is to climb into another man's skin and walk around in it - empathy.
How they learn these lessons is both suspenseful and sometimes shocking, because Maycomb County is no Mayberry (the idealized small town of The Andy Griffith Show - a sitcom whose first season aired the year To Kill a Mockingbird was published). Although both the novel and the sitcom are set in the 1930s, the novel much more accurately shows the problems of poverty, and the prejudices of the times that could at any time lead ordinary men and women to do great evil when the opportunity arises.
The novel is not unrelentingly grim, however. Atticus is a good father and a good man of heroic stature, and teaches his children the lessons mentioned above. Still, there are two things that mar the brilliance of Lee's story. The first is that there is some realistically rough language from some of the characters in the earlier part of the book.
The second is that Atticus, while not specifically hostile to religion, is not at all active in it himself. The children do attend church with their black maid at one point, and learn the practical value of the communion of saints, but while they learn much about depravity, they learn almost nothing about grace. An instructive contrast to make if an adult reads this book at the same time as his or teenage son or daughter is to discuss just how important faith really was in combatting prejudice at the time the novel was published, as Martin Luther King explicitly appealed to the Bible to support his call for equality for blacks in America.
While Harper Lee may not show the need for a Biblical understanding of all men as being created in the image of God, she does show the consequences of denying that image in anyone. The lessons that Scout and Jem learn in their growing up may not be derived from the Bible directly, but Atticus's stress on gentleness and empathy is one that we as Christians should thoughtfully consider in our own quest to show the image of Christ and the fruit of the Spirit.