Sunday, July 18, 2010


Scout’s voice rings true

I AM READING Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Not rereading, but reading it for the first time. I don’t know how I’ve managed to arrive at my 43rd year without having read the book, especially when so many around me love it so much.

I love Scout, the narrator, especially. She’s six years old at the start of the book, and there is nothing more insulting to her than to be told she behaves like a girl. “Scout, sometimes you act so much like a girl, it’s mortifying,” is the sort of thing her brother, Jem, says whenever Scout shows any inclination of not taking part in his plans.

Jem is four years older than Scout and, as big brothers go, is actually a pretty good sort ... most of the time.

By the way, I have not watched the film version either, but I’ve been told that it’s a very faithful dramatisation of the book. Harper Lee liked it and became close friends with Gregory Peck who plays Atticus Finch, the kids’ dad (Peck’s grandson was named Harper).

The children call their father Atticus, which would be unusual even in the 21st century let alone in the American deep south of the 1930s, where and when conventions, manners and appearances were everything. This is one of the first indications that he is not like most fathers.

Atticus, who is a widower, is that most rare breed of parent who actually listens to his children—not that he doesn’t ever lecture them. However, at least he practises what he preaches.

Scout mentions that she can’t remember her mother, but observes how Jem sometimes goes off by himself and recognises this as a sign that her brother misses their mother and leaves him alone on these occasions. Like most children, Jem and Scout are often acutely sensitive to and considerate of others’ feelings. They are also frequently tactless, selfish and indifferent.

I knew before I read Mockingbird that it was about a black man accused of raping a white woman. I assumed that the story would start with an account of the crime or description of the case, continue with the unfolding of the trial, and end with the jury’s verdict. However, there is no mention of Tom Robinson’s arrest and Atticus’ decision to represent him until chapter nine. Up until then, Lee slowly and meticulously paints us a picture of the Finches and their neighbours. Every detail, every little story, every description of an event or person, and every passage of dialogue goes to deepen your understanding of the characters and their lives in Maycomb County, and prepares you for what is to come.

The Tom Robinson trial serves to highlight the book’s themes, in particular that of personal and social prejudice, and everything else in the book underlines the truths that Scout realises by the end of the story.

Mockingbird is full of moral lessons, at times baldly preached, at others illustrated through the actions and the experiences of the characters. However, as the story is seen through the eyes of a little girl, the preaching is to be expected, the didacticism simply an accurate portrayal of what most adults put most children through every day.

Although not published or marketed as a children’s book, I think young readers would find Scout’s voice and attitude accessible and attractive—who could possibly resist a girl who dislikes dresses and whose first instinct is to settle disputes with her fists?

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone over the age of 12. Under-12s may like to read it with their parents who should be able to explain the more puzzling aspects of the world Lee portrays.

The story, with its rich detail and colourful characters, is interesting in itself and as an illustration of a bygone age, but the issues it raises are as relevant today as they were during America’s civil rights movement, when the book was first published 50 years ago. It is this abiding relevance that makes To Kill a Mockingbird the classic it is.

Daphne Lee has never believed in the tooth fairy and thinks Tinkerbell one of the most annoying characters in literature. She likes her fairyfolk tall—and handy with a bow and arrow, but thinks Tolkien’s elves could benefit from sessions of psychotherapy.

Reproduced from the Sunday Star of July 18, 2010


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