Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird & Fulfilling Fiction

Lesson for the week – don’t say you’ll write something tomorrow unless you’re actually going to! I made a promise to get my thoughts out on To Kill a Mocking bird on Boxing day and of course I didn’t. I wonder, when we promise to do something does it make us less inclined to actually do it?! Anyway, here it goes now…

The wonderful Savidge Reads bought me a
charity-shop copy of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Not only did it have a beautiful cover with endearingly well-thumbed pages, what was inside was pure, unadulterated, good for the mind-and-soul literature. What am I going on about? To try and explain, here’s my check list for really fulfilling fiction:

  • It has to be an eye-opener – It’s great to feel as if what you’re reading is really ‘worth it’, that it has substance and you’re going to take something new in. Harper Lee’s portrait of Alabama in the 1930’s is made so vivid in the way that it’s described and whether it’s Scout, Jem and Dill spying on ‘Boo’ Radley, the dramatic court case, or a cut-the-atmosphere-with a knife lunch congregation of southern ladies, Lee has something to say. The trial of Tom Robinson in particular is such a brilliant plot device for her commentary on racism in the Deep South.
  • It’s got to have a great plot – I found the way the plot was constructed unusual and original. A slow-burner to begin with, Lee spends a good few chapters, setting the scene with the children’s antics and school life. Then the court scenes are almost in the middle of the book – a point of high tension, that left me wondering ‘is it finished now then?’. I wasn’t quite prepared for the dramatic ending, which was so successful in tying up the storyline. It was very ‘neat’ in the way that it followed through with a moral conclusion, but I found it an effective contrivance.
  • I want to be moved – Ok, so it didn’t make me cry (heartless wench that I am), but I was moved by the plight of Tom Robinson, and Atticus’ bravery in defending him. That it was all described through the eyes of a child meant that people’s actions seemed even more black and white and therefore so much more unjust when prejudices won over simple reason.
  • It’s got to be real – (I feel like breaking into Cheryl Lynn’s disco classic, but I won’t or the man on the train beside me might think I’m crazy!). Lee has a gift for painting pictures with her words. You genuinely feel as if you are looking right in on the mixed-up Southern community and witnessing the injustice and the contradictions of the situation. And with some exceptions (Tom Robinson and the Ewells are perhaps too stereotypical and simplistically portrayed), some of the characters have got such defined personalities (particularly Scout, and Miss Maudie) you feel as if you know them.

To Kill a Mockingbird ticked all these boxes and it made me wonder why I hadn’t read this bit of literary heaven earlier! In fact now I fancy reading a bit more about the author herself (which is unusual for me as I never read biographies) after bumping into this mention of I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields, when I was searching for an image of my particular edition. I’ve also been inspired to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Bloodwhich I guess will just have to go on my huge ‘to-read’ pile!!

Going back to the novel, one of the things that I found interesting was the way in which the little family of Scout, Jem and Atticus functions. You get a sense that though the family is well respected, they are regarded as a little odd. Having lost her mother, Scout and her little brother are brought up by her father on their own, with help from their maid, Calpurnia (and later on their Aunt too). Scout and Jem live a free childhood, always getting up to mischief. This is frowned upon by community members like their Aunt Alexandra who disapproves of Scout’s tomboy appearance and Mrs Dubose.

The relationship that the children in the book have with their father reminded me of how my parents
used to talk to me almost as a grown-up when I was little and that I called them by their first names, a bit like the children in the novel call their father ‘Atticus’. Another thing I identified with was that my parents were always very open with me.

In the novel, there is some disapproval because Scout sits in on the court case which involves a girl who claims to have been raped. Scout is able to make her own quite mature judgements about the situation because she was able to ask her father what ‘rape’ meant and have it explained to her frankly. The children are outspoken, and adventurous as a result of their unusual upbringing.

I don’t necesarily think that parents should share everything with their children, but I suppose I appreciated the idea that a willingness to be honest with children means that they are able to handle important information better and to understand the consequences of their own actions, making them thoughtful and aware of others.

There’s so much to say about this book, I could go on, but after all that thinking its time to stop and get a cup of tea and get absorbed in Anna Karenina…

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