19 September 2011

Review 39: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This is the first 'classic' that I have tried to review and it's pretty challenging. What do you say about a book has been talked about so much and is so loved by people all over the world? To Kill a Mockingbird was recently voted the UKs favourite book on the World Book Night website. To make matters harder, I pretty much agree with the generally held opinion on this book; its a lovely, engrossing, and thought provoking book with wonderful characters in Atticus and Scout.

Everybody knows the story. I knew the majority of the plot before I started reading this. It was a book that I have always felt like I should read and have in fact let people assume I have read by not correcting them. A pitfall, if you can call it that, of being a librarian is that people assume you have read everything. Particularly classics.  Anyway I can know knock one more off the list. To Kill a Mockingbird: Check.

The story, for anyone who has managed to avoid all mentions of it, is narrated for us by the appealing Scout Finch. Her mother died years ago and she lives in Maycomb, Alabama with her lawyer father Atticus and older brother Jem. Next door is the Radley house where reclusive Boo Radley lives who hasn't been seen outside for years. The Radley house both terrifies and fascinates Scout and Jem. The other key element to the plot is Atticus defending a local black man who has been accused of raping the daughter of a trashy white man. Tom, the black man, faces the death penalty and the Finches have to deal with the prejudice that Atticus defending Tom produces.

Lees skill is dealing with such a serious, horrifying event whilst still maintaining a level of positivity and encouraging elements such as Atticus' relationships with his children. The upsetting trial is set against the wonderful Finch family and means that the book is a delight to read despite its serious events. This is not to say that Lee trivialises what happens to Tom and the way that the resident of Maycomb treat Atticus for defending him. The horror and injustice is set out clearly and we find ourselves following the same thought process as Jem as he watches he trial and sees his father defend he innocent Tom impeccably. Jem begins with convicton that his father has made it clear that Tom did not rape Mayella and this conviction is overturned with the realisation that it means nothing and a white mans word will always be taken over a black mans. Its easy to resign such events to the history books but this book is a reminder that prejudice, if not of this kind, still exists and bizarre decisions are made constantly by governments and by individuals. Lee brings home the sense of how illogical these decisions are.

Against all of this the wonderful characters of Atticus and Scout (and Jem to an extent) need to be mentioned. I always remember the start of the film Almost Famous (amazing film) when Elaine asks Willam his favourite character in literature and William chooses Atticus because he took care of his family on his own. Atticus is pretty much just an awesome person who has apparently become a byword in the law world for doing the right thing.

I loved Scout as despite the fact that she is a little girl growing up in 1920s Alabama, I really related to her. Her struggles to be herself and align what she wants with everybody else as well as trying to work out what it means to be female are pretty much issues that every girl deals with and coupled with Scouts sense of humour and indomitable spirit you can't help but love her.

Ultimately, To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic for a reason.


  1. It is also I believe essential reading before picking up Jasper Jones, due to the many references throughout.
    I also only read Mockingbird recently, and was pleasantly surprised. I had images of the Mathew McConaughey movie with the similar subject matter, and was avoiding being traumatised. I had forgotten about this one. It probably should go in with my other top reads of 2011.

  2. I LOVE To Kill a Mockingbird! I read it a few years ago, but got rid of my mass market paperback. The 50th anniversary edition has a gorgeous cover... may have to pick up another copy soon!

    russel of Alaska Hunting