In high school To Kill A Mockingbird was required reading and I read it. I liked it and sort of fell a little bit in love with Atticus. Recently a book group I belong to decided to do a group read of it so I thought it was high time I read it again. I did and I loved it – and I fell a whole lot in love with Atticus. Nice to know I had some good taste as a kid. But more than all that, this time I really appreciated it – especially because of the times we live in now.
First of all, I have to say to Harper Lee that this is a gorgeously crafted, skillful work and, the author in me wonders what on earth it must have been like to create ones first work and know it would be damn near impossible to do anything as superb again. I think I would have quit writing, too.
Because the book is told from the point of view of a young girl there is an innocence and naivete that has as much to do with the age of the child as it does with the period of time and the location. The Deep South during the Great Depression has never been more skillfully and carefully described. The book is jam-packed with characters who are so believable that even if you didn't live in the Deep South during the Great Depression, you know them. You know Heck Tate, the decent sheriff, and Miss Maudie, with her cakes and her flowers, and all the neighbors and townspeople and country folk. As I was reading I thought that there was not a wasted word in any sentence – every word was as necessary as the brush strokes in a detailed painting. I loved the voices and manners of speaking and that you could tell so much about a character just by the words they used and the way they talked.
Of course the heart of the story is the trial of Tom Robbins, a young, strong, virile black man accused of rape by an ignorant white trash girl and her vile, despicable father. There are hints of family incest and abuse but the simple truth is a black man – no matter how honorable – does not stand a chance against an accusation by a white woman – no matter how low.
I was struck again by the contrast between the townspeople and the country folk in the story. The townspeople lived proscribed, mannered lives and just hoped nothing bad would happen. The country folks were bitter, angry, steeped in resentment and also in terrible poverty. I guess I missed it when I read it the first time that it was no accident that Atticus was chosen to represent Tom. The judge knew Tom was innocent and that the Ewells were trash but he also knew that wasn't going to matter. Appointing Atticus to defend Tom probably wouldn't change the outcome of the verdict but it would most definitely change what everyone would believe despite the impending injustice.
And, of course, there is Atticus – the good lawyer, good father, good citizen and good man. The thing that struck me on this reading was the great, great dignity that was the core of his character, the kind of dignity that all too many people do not even begin to understand. Atticus Finch brings dignity to every scene whether it is helping a neighbor whose house is burning down, shooting a rabid dog, guarding a man he knows to be in danger from a lynch mob, or cuddling his little daughter on his lap and explaining the complications of the world to her.
Throughout my life I've known people like that and what I am always struck by is how their dignity and decentness is so difficult for other people to grasp. There will always be people whose only way to relate to those with dignity and decency is to try to “cut them down to size”, undermine and belittle because the simple truth is a person like Atticus Finch is not dignified and decent and intelligent for any particular purpose, they are that way because that is simply who they are. It is how they are made and it intimidates the hell out of people who aren't like that.
In this time of rampant economic problems, covert racism and bigotry, and raging emotions, the Atticuses among us are a threat – just like defending the innocent Tom was a threat to the fragile civility of the townspeople, so trying to seek justice to a population that is being diminished into servitude by 1% of the populace is a threat to those who don't want to believe our freedom is anything but free.
To Kill A Mockingbird is a great, great book – and more relevant now than ever.
Thanks for reading.