Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, September 8, 2002

He seemed to be a respectable Negro, and a respectable Negro would never go up into somebody’s yard of his own volition.

I don’t think you can fully enjoy any Southern civil rights work without having read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” All such works are written in the shadow of Harper Lee.

RecommendationPurchase Now!
AuthorHarper Lee
Length288 pages
Book Rating10

A member of our writing guild has written a wonderful book called “Lay That Trumpet In Our Hands,” a story of a man assisting the FBI in tracking down the killers of a black fieldhand. It’s a true story, or nearly true, about her own father. She tells it from the viewpoint of a fictional older sister; it focuses on a very different aspect of race relations and the civil rights movement than “Mockingbird”, but there are no escaping the comparisons to Harper Lee’s earlier work. For better or worse (and mostly for the better) “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the quintessential book of the coming of age of civil rights in the South. It’s a story about the changing attitudes of the people themselves. Even the “good guys” in “To Kill a Mockingbird” occasionally say things that sound condescending at best today.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is told as the memories of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, in Maycomb, in Maycomb County, Alabama in the year 1935. Her father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer charged with a defense that is making him an outcast to half the town. He was appointed by the town judge as public defender to a black man accused of raping a white woman. The town seems divided on the case: half think it doesn’t matter whether he did it or not, because he’s black. The other half take the larger view and think that it doesn’t matter whether he did it or not, the blacks have been getting uppity and need to be put in their place. Atticus and a few friends aren’t of either kind.

Fictional Maycomb County is based heavily on Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee grew up and probably still lives. Atticus, the child's father, is based heavily on Harper's own father, but the story is not otherwise autobiographical. In Maycomb, everybody knows everybody; most everybody is related to most everybody else. So you can’t toss someone out just because you disagree with them on vital issues. They’re relations. “By blood or marriage,” Atticus was related to just about everybody in town. Everybody meaning everybody that matters.

Jean Louise is eight years old. Her brother, Jeremy (going by the nickname “Jem”) is 12. This is the story of the summer they met Charles Baker Harris (“Dill”), a seven year old with a good mouth for telling stories, and a good head for making them up.

Dill didn’t live in Maycomb, he lived in Mississippi (or at least said he did), but visited his Aunt Rachel in Maycomb in the summer. And what a place for a precocious boy to take up than the Finch house, right across the street from the neighborhood ghost, Boo Radley.

Dill is not the only precocious child; Jem appears fairly normal, but the voice of the story is Scout, and she is a very precocious eight year old; she was already reading “since she was born”, according to Jem. When the Scout goes to first grade--there is of course no kindergarten in 1930s Maycomb--her teacher is horrified to learn that she can already read. The teacher tells her to forget about reading anything that the teacher hasn't taught. Harper Lee manages to get a few digs into the school system; one has the feeling that she is one of those who found school mostly a waste of time:

I knew nothing except what I gathered from Time magazine and reading everything I could lay hands on at home, but as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.

After the next summer, she goes to second grade, and has the same reaction:

The second grade was as bad as the first, only worse--they still flashed cards at you and wouldn’t let you read or write.

The three children spend their summers worrying about their neighborly ghost, play-acting his tragedies, accepting his gifts, and sending him notes. And wondering why some people are starting to dislike their father, and why a select few others are starting to idolize him. Jem takes the worst of it, when other kids start accusing their father of “defending a nigger”. Scout spends her time mostly confused, not even knowing what “rape” is, that the “nigger” is accused of.

This is a very rich story, that is brilliant and beautiful on first reading, and easily mined over multiple readings for additional insight. Jem’s extremism in defense of insects, the obstreperous aunt’s going out under her own power, unbeholden to anyone else. Scout’s occasional thoughts about running off, Dill’s answer to her question of why Boo Radley’s never run off. “Maybe he doesn’t have anywhere to run off to.” It all connects to the main storyline one way or another.

Harper Lee wrote this novel through the late fifties, with the encouragement of friends like Truman Capote (who, legend goes, makes a surreptitious appearance in the book as young Dill). This was when the civil rights movement was still a black movement, after Brown v. Topeka ordered desegregation at “all deliberate speed”, and the South responded with more deliberation than speed. “To Kill a Mockingbird” came at the right time, and it “said what it had to say”. She has yet to write (or at least to publish) another one. She has supposedly been able to live comfortably off of the book and movie proceeds, thus making her my hero for life. (When HarperCollins re-issued the book in 1995, they wrote to Harper Lee asking for a foreword, she instead wrote begging them not to include a foreword, but rather to let the work stand on its own and “say what it has to say”. They printed excerpts from her request instead, showing typical Yankee unconcern for Southern womanhood.)

This is a beautiful story about an ugly business, but it’s also a book full of hope: things are changing as she writes it, people are beginning to think, to “put themselves in the other guy’s shoes”. Maybe, someday, when children like Jem, Scout, and Dill--and even Walter Cunningham, whose father was part of a lynch mob--grow to adulthood and remember what happened in their youth.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

Recommendation: Purchase Now!