Sunday, November 19, 2006

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

"Naw, Jem, I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks." Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird

I can't think of a more profound line, in any book save the Bible, that totally captures my feelings about the world that we inhabit. Harper Lee, the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, could not have better summed up my feelings if she had asked me herself what I thought. How, in 1961, did a Southern woman writer create a work of art that still has the power to move people? I only wish I knew.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time almost 20 years ago. It was required reading in one of my English classes, so I read it. It wasn't a book that I would have normally read on my own, since it had nothing to do with romance or mythology. However, I can remember being moved by the story of Scout and Jem, their father Atticus, and the small Alabama town in which they lived. I had no idea how much the story said, or even what it said, the first time I read it. I just knew that I'd read something wonderful, something that brought that small town alive in my head. I understood Scout's struggle to figure out her place in her town, to untangle the mysteries of race and inequality, to fight against hypocrisy.

Jean Louise (Scout) Finch is growing up in Maycomb county, Alabama, during the Great Depression. She lives with her father, Atticus, the town lawyer. Her idol is her older brother, Jem. Calpurnia, the negro family housekeeper, is a major force in young Scout's life. Unlike many other families that Scout encounters, hers is near the top of the social ladder of her small town. Scout tries, throughout the book, to make sense of the class structure that seems to govern her life. Sometimes she's successful, sometimes she isn't. Throughout it all though, Scout learns that the true value of any person lies not in the eyes of their society, but in the heart of each individual person. Worth and value have nothing to do with skin color or social status. Every person is an individual, regardless of any instances of mob mentality.

I loved this book 20 years ago, but I don't know that I would have re-read it if it weren't for my husband. He sent me a link to a Google site that talks about Banned Book Week. Over 40 of Radcliffe Publishing House's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century have been either challenged or banned. To Kill a Mockingbird is on that list of banned/challenged books. Being the slightly rebellious and intensely curious person that I am, I decided to re-read TKAM, and try to figure out just why the book has caused such an uproar. I mean, I have a high-schooler, and 5 more headed in that direction eventually. I should really know what they're supposed to be reading, right? So in I dove, and I didn't come to the surface for air for almost 20 hours.

What I've finally decided is that the challenges and banning of books boils down to fear and ignorance. I'm not calling people stupid (though I may have used that word in a fit of anger earlier when trying to explain this to my oldest child). I just think that ignorance is rampant these days, especially in regards to what people want to hide from other people. I'm NOT an African American. I'm not a Black, or a negro person. I can't even begin to comprehend some of the things that they have experienced, even in very recent history. However, I do belong to a minority, and I know how touchy I can be about certain things. I'm a Native American, of the Cheyenne tribe. My father likes to remind me that I'm an "Indian Princess", and he's not exaggerating. So I know a little bit about racism. Granted, my skin pigment isn't all that dark, and I'm usually mistaken for a Mexican (which carries it's own set of prejudices), but I can still understand the concept, ok? Yet, I can't find anything in this book that is malicious to any group of people.

Ms. Lee shows how it was in many small Southern towns during the great Depression. She doesn't try to hide the racism, she brings it right out into the open. You see it all through Scout's eyes, and it isn't always pretty. However, that's exactly what makes this book so incredible. The ugliness and the evil aren't hidden, the author doesn't try to pretend they don't exist. The reader sees them as Scout sees them, and they are ever-present parts of daily life. The difference with this book is that Ms. Lee doesn't try to excuse them, or justify them. She tells, through Scout's voice, just how wrong these things are. As the reader, you are exposed to hypocrisy (the missionary ladies that want to bring Christianity to tribes in Africa, yet think the black townspeople are getting too full of themselves), bigotry (Mrs. Dubose down the street, that doesn't approve of Atticus' new client), and family strife (Scout's own family is angry because Atticus is defending a black man accused of raping a white woman). While Scout realizes how prevalent these things are in her life, the reader has the chance to recognize a few things as well.

Racism still happens today. You really can't deny that. We may be moving forward, but we still have a long way to go. However, trying to ban a book because it uses the "N" word or other racial slurs, or because the reality that it presents is something you'd rather forget ever happened, is just NOT the answer. You can't hide the books and pretend these things never happened just because you're ashamed of them. Banning books is NEVER the answer.

Overcome your fears and pick this book up. Read it through and tell me if this story isn't beautiful. If you hate it, tell me that as well. I want to hear it. I can take it.

There are books and websites dedicated to unraveling this literary hunk of gold, and you can find a few of them here.

"But remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." - Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

No comments: