To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Last weekend I completed a creative writing course with Australian Writer’s Centre. Two whole days of talking about books, characters, novel structures and voice. It was wonderful.

For the course I had to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. I read this a few years ago, but it’s amazing how a second read can make a book come more to life than before.

Harper Lee is an amazing storyteller. Her characters are compelling, her writing beautiful, and her setting convincing. I love her style.

Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colours in a parched landscape…

Lovely.

I forgot how much lead up there is to the main section of the story. Our main character is eight-year-old Scout (Jean-Louise), who lives in Maycombe with her brother Jem and her father Atticus. Scout is wise beyond her years and completely earnest in her beliefs.We witness as she starts school and deals with her own innocent prejudices as a child.

The main plot centres around Atticus (what an epic name by the way) being assigned to defend a black man Tom Robinson in court against scum-of-the-earth, lying Bob Ewell (a white man). What causes such a fuss is that Atticus actually believes in his cause and intends to win the case. In the Deep South of the 1930s, this is an unusual thing to do. And basically a death sentence for Atticus. It is the word of a black man against the word of a white man. And support for a black man angers the town.

As Atticus puts it:

“The evidence boils down to you did, I didn’t. The jury couldn’t possibly be expected to take Tom Robinson’s word against the Ewells'”

This heavy stuff is set against Scout’s first few years of school and her own unknown prejudice against her hermit neighbour Boo Radley, who she and her brother and friend Dill try to draw out of his house. Oh, kids.

The title made a bit more sense to me this time around. Jem and Scout are bought rifles for Christmas, and Atticus tells them they can shoot any birds except mockingbirds.

“I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Mockingbirds don’t spoil crops or get in the way, they just make lovely music. This is contrasted with Tom Robinson’s innocence. He hasn’t hurt anyone, he is respectful and fearful of being wrongfully accused. He couldn’t even have committed the crime of raping Bob Ewell’s daughter as he is crippled. But the court and the town aren’t wired to acknowledge any of that, and eventually Tom is shot while trying to escape from prison.

He likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children

One last thing I’ll mention is that I really admire the way Harper Lee structured this novel. In the opening lines we get a glimpse of what happens in the climax of this story:

When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

And at the end, Scout stands on Boo Radley’s front step imagining the last few years from the recluse’s point of view, to bring it all back around.

This book is amazing, and it’s no wonder it’s a classic.

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