I said in my previous post that school was my primary source for books I didn’t like. Unfortunately that fact tended to prejudice me against every new book that was assigned to me. Among the many genuinely bad books, I’m sure there were a number of good books I read that I was simply unwilling to appreciate. But sometimes a book would be so good that it completely won me over. “Well,” I’d think, “I’ve got to hand it to them, they got it right this time.”
It’s usually required reading in American high schools, nowadays. There was really no reason for me to think I wouldn’t like this book, because before reading I knew nothing about it. The title sounded like an annoying attempt to be poetic in that “Newbury Award-Winning” way that always bugged me. The cover picture likewise. But soon the story sucked me in, and in the end there was no doubt that I loved it.
Atticus Finch is one of my favorite fictional heroes. His courage in defending Tom Robinson against a racist town out for blood, his disregard for his own public reputation, the integrity of his personal life, and the respect he insists on giving to people who often don’t deserve it, the firmness and love with which he instills moral principles in his children, his commitment to peaceful confrontation even when a mob approaches him with violent intent…the list of his virtues stretches on. He’s a believable and inspiring hero, one of the best fathers in fiction, and was played to perfection by Gregory Peck in the truly great 1962 movie.
I also love Scout herself. She’s such a believable little girl, feisty and loyal to her family, headstrong but brought up with integrity, and not quite able to understand the racial prejudice surrounding her. Her brother Jem is also a fascinating character. Watch him in the climactic courtroom scene, as he listens carefully to his father’s legal defense of Robinson and follows the argument. He grows up substantially over the course of the book, and the courtroom scene marks where he begins to comprehend just how unreasoning racial hatred is. Atticus’ defense is perfect and indisputable, and Jem has difficulty trying to understand how the jury could still vote to give Robinson the death penalty when he is physically incapable of committing the alleged crime.
I haven’t reread the book, but I will someday. The device of writing it all from a little girl’s perspective is risky, but it pays off. Scout has a voice of her own, and her recollections of life in Maycomb have the charming ring of nostalgia. The childish escapades are funny, enlivened with the specific textures of Southern life. And the message is delivered with tact, compassion, and artistic skill.
I really wish Harper Lee would write another book!