Publication Date: July 11, 1960
In the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, few things are interesting enough to gossip about. The most common stories revolve around the Radley family, strange and outcasted for as long as anyone can remember.
Then Atticus Finch, prominent lawyer and father of two, is set to defend someone in an unusual case, rocking the whole town. As his daughter, Scout, tries to understand the importance of this case, she also learns more about growing up and how the world changes as you get older.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Date Read: September 16, 2018
I had read this 3 years ago and written a review then, which really isn’t very good. I revisited that review before writing this one, just to see how much my opinions have changed. And…I realized how little detail I put into that review. So let’s hope that this one is a little better.
I’m currently taking a YA Lit class for my minor, and we started the semester by reading To Kill A Mockingbird because we’re looking at the intertextuality of books that discuss similar topics and themes. Everything that we’ve read so far has some kind of connection back to this book, and sets the basis for a paper we’re going to write in a couple of weeks.
Being older now that I’m reading this again, it’s made me look at the book differently. While I had loved it the first time around and still loved it the second time around, my thoughts and opinions had changed significantly as I read this again. Firstly, I thought a lot more about the portrayal of the characters in the book. When we think of this book, we often think about the innocence of Scout, the heroism of Atticus, and the state of Tom Robinson’s trial – that’s all good, but do we really take the time to think about what we’re learning from these characters and what we’re teaching our kids when they read this in middle and high school?
Let’s break it down into more tangible pieces.
Scout, while being a great protagonist, is still a child who doesn’t really understand a lot of what’s going on in Maycomb. Her innocence is refreshing as we navigate the racial tensions in the town and try to figure out everyone’s opinion of Boo Radley. Scout is the lens through which we see a lot of this happen, and I think that we sometimes give her too much credit. She’s a kid who hasn’t been taught to hate because of a difference in skin color yet, but she already knows to some extent that she has a higher social status than people like Calpurnia and Tom Robinson. At the same time that she shows us how we should look past the physical differences and into the core of who a person is, she also shows us that not everyone learns about what it means to have certain prejudices and recognize them. Maybe it’s because she’s a child, but by the end of the book, she has yet to learn that the way she talks about African Americans, the way she thinks about them, and sometimes the way she treats them can be unfair and downright racist.
Leading off that, Atticus doesn’t really teach her that there’s something wrong with what she’s doing. Yes, he raises her to be a good kid who thinks about others and he tells her that we can never judge a person unless we’ve lived in their shoes, but there’s something lacking in what he does teach her. His own view of African Americans is never explicitly stated, even though he appears compassionate and to be very willing to take on Tom Robinson’s case. But something that we talked about in my class has raised a question that stuck with me – is Atticus doing all of this so that he can play the role of hero? If you think about it, he comes in to save the day and he seemingly does so by being the only person to stand up for Tom. Yet, he never actually says that there’s a problem with how people are treating the African American people in Maycomb, nor does he teach his kids that racism is a problem. Atticus is our hero and Maycomb’s hero too – but what has he done that’s really so heroic?
The nature of the racism in Maycomb makes you think about what the book is trying to teach readers. Is the point of this supposed to be that we teach our children that racism is wrong or that we teach our children to be kind to everyone. The latter isn’t a bad lesson, but for a book that’s so highly acclaimed for it’s stance on racism and how to teaches children not to be racist, it really doesn’t do that. It doesn’t talk about why racism is wrong.
None of that is to say that I didn’t still love this book a lot. I enjoyed getting to see Maycomb in a different perspective now that I’m older and now that I understand more about how the world works. I think it’s still an amazing book and the plot is really good. But I’m now learning to ask the question of why this is so critically acclaimed for how it stands up to racism when it doesn’t actually do that.
Scout’s inquisitive nature still teaches us a lot about how we should look at the world with an eagerness to learn and understand. Her innocence teaches us that sometimes things are simpler than what we make them out to be and that children see situations in the purest form, which is why their lives are so much happier. Maybe we could all learn to see things more simply and to stop trying to make problems where none exist. Maybe we should try to maintain the lack of hatred and prejudice that children are born with and possess until someone teaches them to hate the things and people that are different.
Jem still shows us what it’s like to grow up and begin to question what you start understanding as you get older and what you understand from when you were young. Learning to balance what you thought was simple and true as a child with what becomes more and more grey as you get older is never easy. Having the desire to be a child and be grown up at the same time comes with it’s own set of challenges.
Atticus shows us what it’s like to try your best when everything is hard. He’s a single father trying to raise two kids when he’s older than most parents are. He’s trying to fight a case that everything thinks he’s on the wrong side of. He’s trying to do everything right when everything seems to go wrong no matter what he does. But he keeps trying and he keeps teaching his children that there is a code we should all live by.
Whether any of that brings about more issues that we need to discuss, it can’t be ignored that this book has stayed a classic for many reasons. We love to dive deep into books like this to see if it stands the test of time and if it’s really meant to be what we’re all taught in schools. I don’t know what Harper Lee’s intentions were for this book – all I can say is what I’ve discussed in class and what I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about because of reading this for a second time and discussing it for two weeks.
Perhaps the time in which the book was written and published won’t allow for that. Perhaps it wasn’t really intended to be a book against racism that we use to teach our children. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be taught to children at all, and that Scout being the main character at such a young age is merely a coincidence that we’ve used as a reason to give this to middle and high school kids. We don’t have the answers to this and we never will, unfortunately.
Scout will always make me happy. She’s a bright child and she loves reading in the simple way that all children should. She tries to understand things beyond her years, and she often succeeds in doing so because she makes it understandable in her mind. I will never stop finding her intriguing for how she views life.
Jem will always remind me to be kind to my younger sister. Watching him grow up and try to figure out what he thinks and believes, it reminds me that too often, we do the same and forget that those of us with younger siblings have a responsibility to pass down what we learn and understand when the time is right. We literally have smaller human beings looking up to us for guidance because of the bond we share, and that’s something we should remember.
Atticus will still be the lawyer who tried to do the right thing. The father who tried his best to raise his children. The brother who wanted to have peace with his family but knew when to stand his ground. The man who simply wanted what was best for his children and wanted what’s best for his town and the people who live in it. He is the man who wanted to see greater things and wanted everyone else to see it too so that they can all work toward it as a community.
4.5 stars. Still a great classic that everyone should read if you haven’t already. Re-visit it again if you haven’t read it since school and see if your opinions have changed. See what you notice now.