Alexandra Kowal Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer September 26, 2014
Printed in 1960 by J.B. Lippincott and Company, To Kill A Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s only published novel to date. It is often described as a Southern Gothic novel or a Bildungsroman (coming-of-age story). The book quickly gained popularity and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961.
The story features young Scout and Jem Finch, along with their friend Dill, as they navigate living in the town of Maycomb, Alabama during the early 1930s. Two main storylines anchor the book – the children’s fascination with their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, and the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape. As the novel progresses, the children learn about prejudice, the justice system, and what it means to be different in a place that doesn’t tolerate those who operate outside the social norm.
The book has been banned for inappropriate language (including racial slurs and swearing), as well as the controversial themes of discrimination, rape, and violence. Yet, Lee’s treatment of these subjects is for the most part both realistic and respectful. To censor the racial slurs included is to ignore history; to disregard the controversial topics is to ignore reality. Lee merely tries to describe everything as truthfully as she can.
She paints such a complete picture of an old Southern town, likely due in part to her experiences growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. The attention to detail makes Maycomb seem like a real place. Likewise, the characters are varied and believable. A whole host of people from the honorable Atticus Finch to the despicable Bob Ewell populate Lee’s fictional town. Although one can argue that Scout is often unnaturally wise beyond her years, she still realistically has her moments of childishness. The three main children are all likable characters who bring an innocence and inquisitive nature to the issues at hand. They are not infallible, but they are generally “good”. And who can find fault in Atticus, the shining moral example in a corrupt Southern town?
Lee’s writing is descriptive, yet straightforward. Her narrative style raises many questions and allows readers to come to their own conclusions. To Kill A Mockingbirdmanages to be political, yet personal. Readers share in Scout’s hardships when her father agrees to represent Tom. Humorous scenes filled with childhood antics add some levity to the serious plot – just imagine Scout dressed as a giant ham for Halloween.
Lee obviously has an agenda, but the plot does not suffer for it. She is an extremely talented storyteller.
The novel doesn’t shy away from hard truths, most notably seen in the conclusion of Tom Robinson’s trial. Lee isn’t afraid to show unpleasant outcomes, rather than appease the reader with a “happy” ending. However, To Kill A Mockingbird still ends on a hopeful note. Despite what’s happened, Atticus tells Scout that most people are nice when you finally see them. With that passage, Lee implies kindness is fundamental to human nature and extends that faith to her readers.
The issues Lee deals with – race, class, violence – are as relevant today as they were fifty-four years ago. To Kill A Mockingbird is not only an enjoyable read, but an important one.