336 pages, $25.99
Review by Amanda K. Jaros
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a book that has never gone out of print, is a particularly relevant story right now. This year, the book marks its 55th anniversary and is being celebrated in concurrence with the publication of Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman. Despite this much-anticipated release, I find Mockingbird significant today not so much because of Watchman, or the fact that it continues to be a staple of high school English classes, but rather, because every time I turn on the news I see stories of prejudice as our society continues its struggle for racial, sexual orientation and gender equality. Though Mockingbird was first published in 1960, in many ways it could have been written last week.
The story revolves around Scout Finch, an eight-year-old tomboy who spends her summers playing outside with her older brother Jem and their friend, Dill. The three play-act scenes of the townspeople’s quirky habits, they sneak out at night to lurk the neighborhood, and they are obsessed with their reclusive, and unseen, neighbor, Boo Radley. Radley is a phantom of speculation who inspires both fear and fascination in Scout.
It may sound more like a charming middle-grade novel than a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of literary fiction, but it is the situation that unfolds in Scout’s hometown of Maycomb, Alabama that turns Mockingbird into a story that continues to captivate. Scout’s father, Atticus, a well-respected, white lawyer, has taken on the case of a Negro man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. Atticus feels morally obliged to accept the case because he thinks Tom should receive a fair trial. He believes, rightly so, that in their mid-1930’s social climate, the verdict is already in even before the all-white jury has been selected.
What makes Mockingbird brilliant, in my opinion, is that while Scout suffers all sorts of taunting from her classmates because of her father’s association with Tom, she herself is perpetrating her own prejudice. She, Jem, and Dill have formed strong opinions about Boo Radley based on the rumors and stories of their neighbors. The kids have no direct contact with Boo and yet they fabricate a character so distinctly different from themselves that his oddity warrants harassment. In the end, when Boo finally shows himself, the truth of who he is, is the last thing Scout could ever have imagined.
This sense of “other,” of holding a person or a group of people separate from ourselves because of invented ideas rather than reality, is hardly something that only happened in 1930 or 1960; it continues to happen today. Regardless of in what decade we read this story, seeing the world through Scout’s eyes is a powerful reminder that things aren’t always as they seem.
Go Set a Watchman, released in July, continues the themes of Mockingbird. It takes place when Scout is 26, has moved away from Maycomb, and both her family and current political climate have changed. It too deals with the topic of racism, but I found it to be a significantly lesser work. But don’t judge these books based on my opinion. Go read them for yourself, then come to your own conclusions. For that is the ultimate message of Lee’s work: society, the courts, the kids on the playground don’t have all the answers. It is up to us as individuals to dig deeper and find out the truth for ourselves.
Amanda K. Jaros is a freelance writer living in Ithaca, NY and is currently pursuing her MFA in creative writing at Chatham University. She is the Blog Editor at Literary Mama, and her writing has appeared in Pilgrimage, Literary Mama, Natural Life, and a variety of local magazines and newspapers.