Harper Lee’s high school reading curriculum staple is told through the eyes of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a young girl growing up in 1930s Alabama, where money is scarce and racism is rife. The first half of the story follows the exploits of Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill. We meet charming and humorous characters, and are reminded of the simple joys of the days before television and Internet. The children become fascinated with a reclusive neighbour named Arthur “Boo” Radley, making various attempts to catch a glimpse of him. The second half of the story focuses more on Scout’s father, Atticus. He is emotionally reserved, but wise and kind. When a black man named Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white girl, Atticus, a lawyer, is given the job of defending him in court. When certain members of the community discover that not only is Atticus Tom’s defence lawyer, but also that he actually intends to defend him, there is a backlash against the Finch family. The case is difficult: though Tom is clearly innocent, the jury will have to weigh the word of a black man (which counted for little) against that of a white girl and her father. Atticus’s moral courage shines through, and is a beacon for Scout as she learns the world is not as simple and reasonable a place as it ought to be. (Though for all Atticus’s virtues I cannot recommend imitating him: it turns out shooting your neighbour’s dog is an act not so appreciated as the book would have us believe.)
I’m a good guitar player. When I listen to guitar players from famous bands, I often think, I could play like that. Even some difficult songs, if I practiced daily, I know I could learn. Then one night I saw a guy named Steve Vai play; his talent is far beyond my potential. During his concert I thought, I will never play guitar that well. It might have been a deflating thought had the show not been so amazing. I felt the same way when reading this book. Even if I practice writing every day for fifty years, I will never write a story this good. The way it’s told, the personalities, the cultural significance—in guitarist terms, Harper Lee has righteous chops.
The way To Kill a Mockingbird addresses racism is perhaps the main reason it is so powerful. I decided to address the theme in my own writing, and went online and asked people to share their opinions on racism in today’s world. I was inundated with responses. One passionate woman suggested that racism—discrimination based on a person’s skin colour—could be ended by killing everyone with white skin. If only Martin Luther King Jr were alive to see his dream becoming reality.
Harper Lee is like English music group Right Said Fred: a one hit wonder whose hit is so damn good she doesn’t need another. I stayed up until three in the morning to finish To Kill a Mockingbird; that’s two hours later than I’ve ever stayed up listening to I’m Too Sexy. I can’t give higher praise than that. 10/10
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