To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee (1960)
I have been inexplicably more into classics for a while now. They have longer sentences, unfamiliar settings, play out in places whose names have changed, and brush over politics and societal norms I am clueless about. I know that this one, though, is fairly contemporary. I know that I am late in adding it to my shelves. When I started To Kill A Mockingbird, without the pressure of an upcoming exam, it seemed stretched at first, and my placid intellectual curiosity started to get strained. What kept me going was Scout’s complacent, innocent and bemused six year old self taking on the responsibility of defending her father to uphold her own diginity; while still largely clueless about the issue at hand. The writing is cloaked with humour at the face of serious scenarios and overwhelming passion towards seemingly unimportant events; a trademark in most narrations by an unabashed adult speaking in the guise of a child. The smile slides off my face when somewhere in between, like more and more ‘hashtag engrossed hashtag bookworm’ readers nowadays during my internet break, I find that it’s based on the Scottsboro case of 1931, where nine black men were accused of raping two white women and five were convicted on what appears to be simply racial prejudice. I picked up where I left off, guilty of trivializing it to myself.
It took me fewer and shorter breaks from then. Don’t some books keep you glued from the first page itself, but fail to make a lasting impact after you finish it? And others make you keep reading, with or without purpose until somewhere along the ride you realize you’d have been a fool to abandon it during the first few pages. Little dots connect as the Scout’s narrative comes to a close, and the dots I initially thought were simply anecdotes to provide insight into each child protagonist’s interests and character, turned out to be groundbreaking moral lessons, so subtly reasoned that I had no idea they were coming. That’s why I call Harper Lee’s 1960 bestseller as one of the latter.
The three wannabe musketeers in Maycomb are six year old Scout, her older brother Jem, and their neighbour Dill exclusively in summertime, fascinated by the Radley house and it’s infamous recluse Arthur “Boo” Radley. The object of their salient scrutiny and unspeakable fascination in turn leaves them gifts in the hollow of a tree in his yard and sews their clothes deserted on his fence in momentary haste, but doesn’t do the courtesy of showing them his face, inciting their awe and suspicion. Their attention and curiosity take on new directions, however, when Scout and Jem’s father, Atticus, a middle aged complacent lawyer, is appointed to defend the case of Tom Robinson, a black young man accused of raping a white woman. Maycomb citizens begin to turn their heads and give side eyes to the Finch family. The children at school are learning words from their families faster than Scout is, including “nigger lovers” that she and her brother are sneered at on a daily basis. It’s jarringly nice how Scout shouts and fights back despite lacking a proper retort, as the poor innocent does not quite catch the insult itself.
“It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”
The tiny warlords don’t simply fight the tone thrown by lads of their height, they unconsciously disperse a mob about to lynch the suspect by shaming them with their mere presence, though unexpected in the dead of the night. Atticus, intelligent, aware but still unwaveringly righteous continues his case shielding the children further and further away from it. Inspite of all his attempts, the children end up witnessing part of the trial through the “coloured balcony”. The most interesting trick in this part of Lee’s narration is how differently Scout and Jem ponder over the happenings and behave in the aftermath; Jem is aggrieved, refusing to talk for a long while, Scout is unperturbed, the only feelings she reciprocates are a response to the sudden change in her brother’s demeanor. Of course, this difference in retaliation is justified from their age difference, but also understated once again by the mass reaction of the Maycomb public, all adult and conscious, yet white and black populations, as ever, in starking contrast. Staying true to preserving the naivety of this adorable protagonist, Harper Lee doesn’t make the trial the end of the story for little miss Scout. As loose ends in the name of childish frivolity begin to unexpectedly piece together, her earlier adventurous fantasies and present, coerced reality meet at crossroads; and she reveals, almost secretively, to the readers how there are heroes in the shadows and monsters in blinding light, as if she isn’t quite sure of the truth yet.
“Tom Robinson’s a colored man, Jem. No jury in this part of the world’s going to say ‘We think you’re guilty, but not very’ on a charge like that.”
We’ve been over this again and again, to the point where people are tired of acknowledging the colour of their skin and accepting the privileges they may or may not have. Sometimes we need to visit the 1930s through the perspective of a 6 year old, to see for ourselves what our ancestors went through to make our world as it is today, and why we must follow their example. It is nowhere near what they had fought for it to become; and the blame falls on us as long as we’re alive, and our children the same. Granted an utopia may not exist; yet we have no reason to not rebel in the hopes of catching a glimpse. Jem Finch was devastated. Scout Finch was confused and apathetic. Atticus Finch knew his fate, understood why people did not take his side, and yet deliberately begged to differ for the sake of a human besides himself and his family. He strived for what was right without any clever cause, a trait we look down upon in our times of glamourizing manipulation and egotism. So, which one would you want to take after?
Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird- Atticus