Set in a small town in Alabama in the mid-1930s, Mockingbird follows the lives of Jean-Louise Finch, or “Scout”, her older brother Jem and their friend Dill over the course of two or three years during which they taunt their never-seen neighbour, Arthur “Boo” Radley, read to the cruel-tongued Mrs. Dubose as she fights off her morphine addiction, and get into fights with schoolmates over their father, Atticus Finch, defending a black man, Tom Robinson, arrested for raping a white woman.
The trial is apparently based on a true story, and I hear there are also similarities between Lee and Scout, but I don’t know anything about that. This is one of those books, like Catcher in the Rye, that every student in Canada and America has to read in high school, but which no one else has read. I can see why it’s a classic, and high school is the best time to read it. As an adult, and especially one with limited knowledge of US history and a degree in literature, I found To Kill a Mockingbird incredibly heavy-handed and obvious. Very little is left to the reader to figure out on their own. In fact, it was so shoved down my throat that if it hadn’t have been written so engagingly, and the trial so fascinating, I would have really struggled to finish it.
“If you had been on that jury, son, and eleven other boys like you, Tom would be a free man,” said Atticus. “So far nothing in your life has interfered with your reasoning process. Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom’s jury, but you saw something come between them and reason. You saw the same thing that night in front of the jail. When that crew went away, they didn’t go as reasonable men, they went because we were there. There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads – they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.”
“Doesn’t make it right,” said Jem stolidly. He beat his fist softly on his knee. “You just can’t convict a man on evidence like that – you can’t.”
“You couldn’t, but they could and did. The older you grow the more of it you’ll see. The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any colour of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you someting and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”
The unsubtle moralising and preaching, for me, got in the way of an otherwise good story. The characters are so cliched they must be true to their time and place, and the connection between the townsfolk hating Hitler because he judges and persecutes Jews, and then doing exactly the same thing not just to black people but also poor white people too – and each other, in fact – is pretty blatant. Not that it’s not true – we can all be pretty hypocritical at times – but my point is that there’s no subtlety in this book.
The use of Boo Radley’s character in capturing the prejudice-born-of-ignorance of the three young children, stands in for the towns’ attitude towards the black population. Every lady is a gossip, every man a rustic. Over it all, little 7, 8 year old Scout’s voice documents it all with many shifts in diction. There are times when she slips and, while her vocabulary can be explained by having the father and upbringing that she had, her “gonnas” and “ain’ts” disappear at moments of adult reflection. Her adjectives, her reading of body language and what’s going on between adults, speaks of a greater understanding than she shows when she speaks. Ah well, it’s no That Eye, The Sky but “it ain’t bad neither.”
And it’s probably done wonders for the American social conscience. Some messages are just too important to let slip between the silky lines of wankerite literature.