One of the challenges of teaching high school is that I don’t have as much time to read for pleasure during the school year. One of the joys, however, is that I get to revisit old favorites and meet great classics I missed in school. I just finished teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, and I do think it is my favorite piece of literature I have ever taught.
Like A Tale of Two Cities, To Kill a Mockingbird instantly became one of my favorites when I first read it in Mrs. Ereli’s eighth grade English class. Harper Lee’s evocative tale of growing up in Jim Crow south struck a chord, highlighting the universal trials and joys of childhood through the lens of the Great Depression. And like A Tale of Two Cities, I was slightly apprehensive that my beloved book would not hold up to a second reading years later. I needn’t have worried.
Lee’s gorgeous and riotous prose leaps off the page, ensnaring the reader in the simple yet fully-realized picture she paints. Narrator Scout, 6 years old at the book’s beginning and 8 by the end, reads as a child you actually know, innocent and yet wise beyond her years. She is not precious or one-dimensional or caricature-ish. Scout experiences childhood the way I remember childhood. And she (or Lee as Scout) has such a way with words! One of my favorite descriptions is when, in an attempt to describe Calpurnia when angry, Scout notes that her grammar is “erratic.” So simple, so direct, so clear. Lee captures the freedom and frustrations of childhood: the confusion of the adult world combined with the struggle to be taken seriously, as more than a child; the need to play and be creative with abandon; the desire to learn fighting with the structures of education; the difficulty of figuring out what is right and wrong.
Additionally, Lee is a master of inserting an image or a story or a reference with seemingly little importance and quietly spinning it into a major symbol or allusion in the book. Of course the mockingbird is an obvious example, and my students thrilled in making their arguments about who the mockingbird is. (One student valiantly tried to convince me it was Dill, and though I never quite got there, he made a compelling argument.) But next time you read it, see what you can discern about the turtle or Jem’s book, The Grey Ghost. And, of course, you can try tracing Boo Radley, possibly the most endearing and heartbreaking character of all, throughout the book. He is my favorite.
It is important to note that Lee published this story about the cruel effects of 1930’s racism in 1960 as the Civil Rights movement began to pick up steam. Here and there throughout the book, characters (mainly Atticus) subtly reference the “present times” of the 1960’s. The horrors of Tom Robinson’s trial serve as a catalyst for the kind of progressive shift in mindset Lee was pulling her characters through and a foreshadowing of the change the country was being thrown into as well. Lee deals with the difficult topics of racism, rape, and injustice directly and unflinchingly. And yet, there is a grace, subtlety, and honesty to her writing that almost makes the injustices perpetrated even more horrifying and stark because we read them through Scout’s eyes. One of the most important books in American literature and one of the most effective books dealing with 20th century American racism is told through the eyes and experience of a child. Because, as Ms. Lee says, “Children…can understand it” (201).
I can’t try to review To Kill a Mockingbird any more than I could A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps someone else could. I’m just too in love with it. And so I simply encourage you to spend some time revisiting the Finch family of Maycomb County, Alabama. And if you’ve never been, well, it’s always a great time for a first visit!