Recent Racial Tensions and the book To Kill a Mockingbird
Lee's novel is set in 1935 during the Great Depression in a fictitious southern Alabama town, Maycomb, similar to the Alabama town of Monroeville in which Lee grew up. The book is narrated in the first person by "Scout" Finch a preadolescent tomboy. Scout's mother died when the girl was two. She lives with her older brother Jem, and her father, a middle-aged lawyer, Atticus Finch. The family has an African American maid, Calpurnia, who does much in helping to raise the two children.
The pacing and the storytelling of the book vary with the events recounted. Much of the book describes with obvious love the town of Maycomb and its environs and people. In these lengthy sections, which are valuable in themselves and for setting the stage, the book moves as sleepily as a hot summer day.
The storytelling is much quicker and more dramatic when Atticus Finch is called upon to defend Tom Robinson, an African American man accused of raping a 19-year old woman who lives with her poor rural family. The trial, its build-up, and its aftermath are recounted sharply and with suspense. With the end of the trial and the unfortunate following event, the book becomes a mix of the descriptive style of place and Southern Gothic as Scout and Jem have a harrowing adventure the night of Halloween involving a large local home and one of its inhabitants whom they have never seen.
When I first read the book in high school during the civil rights era, it was viewed as a novel of race relations. Reading the book when I am much older and in a different time from the 1960s, I had a broader impression. Racial discrimination in the South is certainly at the heart of the story. But I found the story of growing up, the characterization of many people in the town from all walks of life, the writing style, and the author's attitude towards place and character were as important to her novel as the theme of racial prejudice. After a long career as a lawyer, I also was taken again with Atticus Finch and his devotion to the law, to acting justly, and to his family.
I couldn't help thinking about this book in light of the polarization over many issues which now plagues our country. Some people read "To Kill a Mockingbird" as raising themes such as gender, caste, economic status in addition to race; and perhaps it does so. The tone of the book, however, seems to me far from the tone of the discussion in much of contemporary America from all sides. The book is sober, restrained and non-judgmental. The critique that it offers of racial prejudice, and perhaps of other issues as well, is offered in a quiet voice with respect for everyone, including the perpetuators of the discrimination. Atticus Finch famously advises his children not to criticize others until one has walked in their shoes and Lee follows her character's advice in the course of the novel. Issues which could and did become sharp and polarizing were treated softly with a sense of respect. As I reread the book, I thought of how much of our discourse has sharpened with so many people thinking they are right and that people who think differently are wrong. This would be so for those who strongly share some of the concerns that they find addressed in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and for those who, perhaps, think differently about some of them. Lee's novel shows a love for its particular place in southern Alabama and for its particularly described people even when it is critical of their behavior. And so, I took from the book, many years after my first reading, the message of love of place, of the United States, and its people. We can love others even when we disagree without the sense of absolutism or self-righteousness. I was grateful for the opportunity accorded by the book group to think again about Harper Lee and her novel.