Coming out of hiding

I should apologise for pretty much disappearing for over a month, but then you’ve probably got used to my doing so when I amn’t specifically challenging myself not to do so. Must do better. Again. Anyway, I just finished this book tonight, and thought I’d get straight to discussing it. I’ve even pre-drafted my post… (DH and I are temporarily sharing one computer at the moment, so I started writing it out by hand. I should warn you it got long.)

To Kill a Mockingbird

Image via Wikipedia

49. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I’m not sure I’ve read  To Kill a Mockingbird since doing so as a teenager, despite always being quite clear it’d be worthwhile, as this is a great book – deservedly a modern classic. I’m pretty sure it’s one we did in school, although I’d probably read it myself prior to that. I’m not sure did I see the film before or after first reading the book, but it was around the same time. Since this is a well known classic, I’ll be less wary about spoilers than I usually am, but won’t spoil things for the sake of it.

I remembered that it was about a court case, where the outcome was an unfair foregone conclusion, and ‘victory’ for truth and real justice was measured morally by the fact that the jury didn’t convict the Black defendant in under five minutes, but actually took several hours to do so, regardless of the fact that the evidence against him was tenuous (and circumstantial) at best, and obviously outright lies at worst.

I hadn’t remembered that the actual court scenes all take place in just one day, (and that the case and the individuals involved aren’t mentioned until a third of the way into the book, although it decidedly impacts all the rest of the story) while the book covers nearly three years in the lives of Scout, our young narrator, her older brother Jem, their father Atticus Finch (defence lawyer in the case above) and the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama between summer 1933 and spring 1936. Also, while Boo Radley, their reclusive neighbour, has a name which has entered popular culture, I hadn’t recalled how well the disparate storylines are tied together.

I suppose what I’m coming to on this reread of the book is the idea that it’s about justice in practice  and concept, and the importance of who is allowed to decide and enforce that. While the professional lawmakers and enforcers that we get to meet and know in this book are all honourable men whose intention is to do right by all (thinking here of Atticus, Judge Taylor and the county sheriff, Heck Tate) we are certainly shown some of their own prejudices and faults, as well as the severe problems of the judicial system all of them are sworn and see it as a core principle to uphold, particularly in the potential for mob rule taking over even the jury system.

In the end, a truer justice is portrayed by good men choosing to keep certain things out of the public judicial system, and yet it’s clear this can only work because this is a group of right-thinking people making a difficult choice. Previous instances of individuals, and especially groups, taking things into their own hands have had to be suffered or fended off by some of the most potentially vulnerable characters in the book, with varying degrees of success.

Harper Lee’s brilliance in using a child narrator for this story is shown in how the hypocrisy and prejudice of the adult society can be ignored, sidestepped, shown up or wilfully misunderstood by Scout and/or her contemporaries (particularly  Jem and their friend Dill, who as an outsider to the town (he comes to stay with his aunt each summer) can sometimes see through the attitudes even Scout has imbibed from the ether.

At the same time, the child’s propensity to see things in black and white is not ignored, and we see Scout’s growing understanding and appreciation for the subtleties of adult interaction, and her growing empathy for vulnerable people.

Ultimately, I suppose this book is the story of Scout’s growing comprehension of the social inequities that surround her, in a world that’s about to change in ways she can’t possibly guess. (The book was published in 1960, so Lee would have known her characters would go through World War II and the burgeoning African-American Civil Rights movement, and perhaps even the beginnings of Second-Wave Feminism.)

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