Book #2: To Kill A Mockingbird
- To Kill A Mockingbird (published in 1960) has sold more than 30 million copies, been translated into 40 languages, and won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize.
- The novel was made into a hugely successful movie in 1962, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.
- In a 2006 survey of librarians, To Kill A Mockingbird was second only to the Bible in a list of books everyone should read before they die.
- Dill’s character in the book was based on Truman Capote, a childhood friend of To Kill A Mockingbird Author Harper Lee.
- To Kill A Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s only novel, and one of only a few of her published pieces.
I’ve had quite a few people ridicule me for never having read To Kill A Mockingbird. My wife said I should be ashamed to be a southerner. It’s true; I should be ashamed. That’s why I put this book second on list of the 101. Thankfully, now that I’ve read it, no longer am I a loser southerner.
Some books are just good as books. Maybe they are well-written, with beautiful prose and creative imagery. The authors do their job—which is to entertain you. But To Kill A Mockingbird is a different kind of book. Not only did Harper Lee manage to do all of those things, she also made a social commentary that has impacted millions of people over the last five decades.
You know the story. Or, if you don’t…it’s time you read it. The book is really broken into two parts. The first part centers on the narrator—a six-year-old girl named “Scout” Finch—her older brother, Jem, and their best friend, Dill, who visits every summer. The three spend their summers in the dusty old town of fictional Maycomb, Alabama trying to figure out a way to get the reclusive, rarely-seen “Boo Radley to come out” of his boarded up house across the street.
The second part of the novel follows Scout and Jem as they deal with the repercussions of their father’s court case. Atticus Finch is a lawyer who is representing an innocent black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping the town drunk’s daughter. Atticus and his family endure all sorts of verbal, and even physical, abuse from white townspeople who are livid with him for representing a black man. When Robinson is convicted by an all-white jury, eventually getting killed when he tries to escape from jail, all hell breaks loose in Maycomb.
Very few books that I’ve read have painted such a picture of time and place like To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee dropped me right in the middle of small-town Alabama in the 1930s—a town where everyone knows each other, some families are known to have “gambling streaks” and “drinking streaks,” and white folks love God and hate black people.
I love Lee’s description of Maycomb in the first chapter:
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
In my dreams, I write like that.
The book is similar to The Catcher in the Rye in many ways. Both use an adolescent narrator who attempts to “fight the man”—Holden fights against he phoniness of the adult world while Scout, through her father Atticus, look to take a principled stand against a racist town who is bent on killing an innocent man.
Scout develops more as a character than Holden, making To Kill A Mockingbird more of a bildungsroman, which is a fancy literary term that means the protagonist is kid who learned a lot of stuff and grew up. The book’s timeline goes over a series of several years, and we see Scout and her brother Jem both progress as characters into young adults over this period.
As a Christian, I would even propose that Lee’s book is heavy on Christian principles. To summarize the novel in one sentence, I’ll steal a line from Atticus Finch: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
I’m a Christian who does my best to follow Jesus, and that’s why I love the character of Atticus Finch so much. He didn’t care what the town thought. He didn’t care that he was the lone voice in the wilderness. He followed what he knew was right—even if it meant putting himself in danger. That’s integrity.
The Meaning: The term “to kill a mockingbird” represents killing the innocent. Maudie tells Scout: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Mockingbirds are innocent. Tom Robinson was a “mockingbird” who’s only fault was to try and help out a white girl.
Highlights: The prose. As I said above, I’ve never felt like I’ve been catapulted into another time and place quite like I did while reading To Kill A Mockingbird. I rarely re-read books (except for the purpose of completing this list), but when I’m done with the 101, I’ll re-read this one. It’s that good.
The book also has the Animal Farm feel. You know you are reading about something much bigger than the story itself.
Lowlights: On the flip side, it’s sometimes hard to believe the narrator is six-years-old. Her language and understanding of complex issues like justice and racism are extremely advanced. It’s an issue I noticed, but didn’t get too hung up on.
I disagree on this issue, so it’s not really a lowlight, but some critics believe the black characters are too one dimensional and are props to set up Atticus Finch as the hero. I thought main black characters like Tom Robinson and the Finch’s housekeeper, Calpurnia, were actually more complicated and complex than their white counterparts.
Memorable Line: “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” –Scout Finch
Final Thoughts: Much like The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird is a must-read if you really consider yourself an avid reader. You’ll take away a lot from this book. It really caused me to reset my mind and realize how far this country has come in terms of civil rights. No doubt, a far more subtle racism still exists here in America, but the type of angry mob that Tom Robinson faced, and Atticus Finch fought against, every single day is a thing of the past. Read it.
Up Next: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Question: Have you read To Kill A Mockingbird? Hate it? Love it?