Friday, August 27, 2010

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 323
Date Published: 1960 (I read the 50th anniversary edition published in 2010)
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Source: I won a copy of this book in a giveaway at She Is Too Fond of Books. Thanks Dawn and Harper Perennial!
Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Book description:
Harper Lee's classic novel of a lawyer in the Deep South defending a black man charged with the rape of a white girl.
One of the best-loved stories of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird has earned many distinctions since its original publication in 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize, has been translated into more than forty languages, sold more than thirty million copies worldwide, and been made into an enormously popular movie. Most recently, librarians across the country gave the book the highest of honors by voting it the best novel of the twentieth century.
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I remember reading this book in school. When I read it at the time, I read it with a child's eyes--the things that stood out to me then were things that would most likely catch a child's attention. I felt a connection with Scout and her experiences with Jem and Dill and her curiosity about Boo Radley. I especially remembered the scene when a boy in her class, Walter, comes to dinner and how he put molasses on all of his food. But it had been long enough since I read the book that I only had a vague memory of the book's storyline. Reading it again in July in honor of the book's 50th anniversary was almost like reading it again for the first time.

My first reaction when I started reading was that I had forgotten how often the n-word is used in this novel. For that reason alone, this book put in the hands of a child deserves a good discussion about prejudice, what southern attitudes used to be towards African Americans, and how things have (and haven't) changed since then.

I loved looking at the book from an adult's point of view. I could recognize that Atticus was a very different parent than the norm and could appreciate his point of view on parenting. As a mother and wife, I also now have a whole new perspective of Tom Robinson and his family, and what a real travesty his trial was. Similarly, I had a whole new appreciation for Boo Radley, who became one of my favorite characters in the book. One of the things that really moved me this time around was the way that Jem's idealism and hope were affected by the travesty of justice that ultimately took Tom Robinson's life. His faith in humanity was decimated, and that was sad. But he only experienced it from the outside looking in, watching it being done to someone else. Imagine how horrid it would have been to have been Tom Robinson or any of his family and friends.

Upon reflection, I really think this book deserves being called "an American classic" and I think it should stay that way. There have been recent criticisms of Atticus Finch for not being enough of an activist and for essentially supporting the status quo (see Malcolm Gladwell, "The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism," New Yorker, 10 August 2009), and while I think he has a point on that count, to reject the book because Atticus isn't a big enough hero is unnecessary. In every way, it serves as a reminder of life at that moment in time, even when we don't think they've done or said the right thing, or gone as far as we wish they would have gone. But I also think it's a little problematic to want to make an author's characters into something that they're not. Atticus may be tame by today's standards, but he was taking quite a stand in for a Southerner in that era. I also tend to agree with Kathleen Parker's assessment of the criticism.

If you haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird yet, you really should. It is thought-provoking and has worked its way into our culture. Why not join the 50th anniversary celebration by reading it before the year is out?

Related linkage:
Reading Challenge: Flashback Challenge

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