Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Don’t expect any great thesis on this book folks – I didn’t study it when I was at school and I’m not a swooning fan. I’m writing this post because this was the first of my ‘summer holiday books’; more posts will follow covering the others. I decided to do them one by one this year rather than all lumped together like I have done previously – it makes the writing of the posts easier and hopefully the reading too.

Given that it has been on school reading lists for some time now in the UK and there was much fuss some months ago when some dingbat Education Secretary wanted to remove it from the list, I decided to give To ‘Kill a Mockingbird’ a try. I had been looking out for it (and books like ‘The Great Gatsby’) in second stores but in fact bought my copy from Tesco. It was some kind of rereleased anniversary edition no doubt released to cash in on the news that a new manuscript by Harper Lee had been uncovered and would be released as her second novel.

Thinking about it, I don’t recall studying any American classics when I was at school with perhaps the exception of some chapters from Huckleberry Finn. I read J. D. Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ off my own bat (‘scuse pun) because I was a Beatles fan and I had read that the guy who shot John Lennon had been reading it. I enjoyed the book immensely.

So on to Lee’s, not for much longer, one hit wonder ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and international bestseller – it has sold over 40 million copies worldwide…

The main character is Scout a bright six year old girl growing up in the small fictional town of Maycomb in the American South during the Depression. She is a bit of a tomboy always getting up to mischief with her older brother. Her intelligent and somewhat distant father Atticus Finch (played by Oscar winning Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation) is a kind-hearted and thoroughly humanist lawyer.

In the first half of the book, which I have to say I found interesting but quite slow in comparison to modern standards, we learn about Scout’s family life, schooling and community. The mysterious Radley family who live across the road are the subject of some intense speculation mostly centred on the son ‘Boo’. It was nice to read about the source of the name of one of my favourite bands The Boo Radleys, and indeed in my opinion Boo Radley is the most intriguing (and underdeveloped) of all characters in the book.

The second half of the book revolves around court proceedings in which Finch defends a black man named Tom Robinson who has been accused of raping a white woman from a trash poor family. Falsely it transpires, although he’s still found guilty. The case divides the community of Maycomb and allows the story to explore issues of class, racial prejudice and smalltown small-mindedness. The book also explores themes of growing from a child to a young adult, moral and ethical education.

Boo makes an appearance as the Deus Ex Machina towards the end of the novel which I thought Lee could have elaborated on somewhat. The scene is very subtly handled, perhaps too subtly for my modern eyes, and having not seen the film I wonder if it was treated differently for the big screen.

Although it’s culturally significant, especially in the USA, I wasn’t blown away by the book if I am frank (and when am I not folks?). However, I will be buying ‘Go Set a Watchman’ when it comes out in paperback.

The story goes that Lee wrote ‘Go Set a Watchman’ featuring an older Scout in the mid-1950s before ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Lee’s editor persuaded her to rewrite some of the flashback sequences from ‘Go Set a Watchman’ as a novel in their own right and so ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, set some twenty years before ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was born. So when we get to read it we’ll find that ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is a sequel, although the original manuscript predates the debut novel.

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