Saturday, September 19, 2015

512 (2015 #69). To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

I first read this book in the eighth grade, and we discussed it in my literature class.  I was even one of three students to be among the first users of our K-8 Catholic school's closed-circuit TV and tape system, recording a program about the novel, where I discussed the story from Scout Finch's point of view.

I'm not going to try to review this well-known novel.  In re-reading it 45 years after I first read it, and shortly after reading Harper Lee's recently released Go Set a Watchman, the precursor to this book, I can say that what I most noticed was the wry humor of Scout's recollections of her childhood.  Yes, there was this serious trial going on, but much of it is a story of an otherwise rather idyllic childhood. in mid-1930s Mississippi.

A couple examples of the humor:

On page 16, Scout talks about her first grade teacher:

"...I am Miss Caroline Fisher.  I am from North Alabama, from Winston County."  The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region. (When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.)  North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other people of no background.

And later, on page 18, Jem calls the "new way they're teachin' the first grade...the Dewey Decimal System."

The book begins in the summer of 1933 when Scout is six and her brother Jem is ten- there's a reference to Roosevelt's nothing "to fear but fear itself" speech on page 6, and to The Gray Ghost on page 13, published in book form about 1926. (The book is also referenced in the last two pages of To Kill a Mockingbird.)  It ends in the fall of 1935 - there are references to Hitler on pages 244-247, ending with Scout's observation about her third grade teacher:

"Miss Gates is a nice lady, ain't she?"
"Why sure," said Jem...
"She hates Hitler a lot..."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treatin' the Jews like that.  Jem, it's not right to persecute anybody, is it?  I mean have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?"
"Gracious no, Scout.  What's eatin' you?"
"Well, coming out of the courthouse that night [after Tom Robinson's trial], ... I heard her say it's time somebody taught 'em a lesson, they were gettin' way above themselves, an' the next thing they think they can do is marry us.  Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an' then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home--"

I'd also like to note that Atticus Finch wasn't really some perfect non-racist in this book.  He treats Calpurnia, the housekeeper who is practically raising his children, quite well - but not as an equal.  He's appointed to defend Tom Robinson - he doesn't volunteer.  He defends Tom because he believes in the law, and because he believes there's very good evidence Tom did not commit rape.  Heroic, yes, particularly because it was dangerous for him to do so at the time, but it doesn't make him an anti-racism god.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[I own this copy of the book.]

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