There is so much about which to editorialize in our open-air laugh academy of a society that I find I must pick and choose my subjects, or I forget to do ‘important’ stuff, like feed the animals, walk the dog, and scrape the cat boxes. So when Harper Lee’s lawyer got the dollar-signs in her eyes, finagled Go Set a Watchman into print, and Progressive heads exploded after Atticus Finch expressed common Southron sentiments typical of 1950’s Alabamians, I determined to see what the fuss was about.
With the exception of one course that had the sole virtue of being taught by a kindly elderly professorix, I managed to avoid the ‘Classics’ of American Literature: Catcher in the Rye, Moby Dick(now almost unreadable because of 170+ years of linguistic drift and almost that much time of dumbing down students), a short ton of titles that escape me at the moment and, of course, To Kill A Mockingbird.
My prettier half, coming from Austria, learned English on books like Mockingbird. Consequently, she was very taken with it and constantly urged me to read it. After roughly fifty years of literacy, I finally picked it up when K-Mart put a paperback copy on special.
Ordinarily, I’m a science fiction reader; what the execrable Alexi Panshin calls ‘mimetic’ fiction (I prefer mundane fiction) lacks appeal to me. Still, I sped through Mockingbird in about six hours(my speed-reading skills declined after the crack on the head that retired me), interrupted reluctantly by a night’s sleep.
My greatest praise of the book is for Ms. Lee’s clean, simple prose; a bright third grader could read Mockingbird without much of a struggle except with what words pertain to almost-forgotten Thirties artifacts and customs. She limits description to a minimum and makes it interesting, unlike some authors who lump it into their mss like globs of moldy banana pudding. She mastered the writing concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ most beautifully. The mechanics of the story are sound.
When I got into the characters, I found them believable… but oddly enough, Atticus Finch, although the best developed, proved the least credible. Atticus is no dummy, which he proves by practicing law without any sort of high school, let alone university, degree: not unknown in a time and place where home-schooling was often the default mode until truancy laws came along. He’s also a world-class marksman, but will not teach his children to use simple air rifles, and entertains(here’s where the believe-ability wears thin) pacifist sentiments. When the notorious Bob Ewell–parent of the alleged rape victim, domestic abuser, filer of false police reports, perjurer, and general piece of human debris–threatens Atticus and spits in his face, Atticus just walks away with the thought that he wished Ewell didn’t chew tobacco. (In Atticus’ place, I’d’ve opened Ewell’s mind with a .38, .45, or .357–they didn’t have the big magnums or the .40 S&W in the thirties–spat on the twitching corpse, walked home, and slept well that night. I’m sure the sheriff would’ve ruled self defense, for he shows similar common-sense procedural elasticity several times in the book. If the case made it to trial(unlikely), ‘He needed killin’!’ would’ve sufficed for a defense. Besides, it was the heyday of the eugenics movement, and Ewell was a Kallikak studying to be a Jukes but playing hooky instead of studying!) We are never told why Atticus is a pacifist; one of the characters alludes to a traumatic event that no one ever explains to Scout.
So much literary observation–at least what I read online before I read the actual dead-tree book–seems to posit Atticus as the hero because of his skilled defense of Tom, the accused and innocent rapist. He’s not: he’s a bit of a coward, although he is consistent to his pacifist principles.
SPOILER ALERT! When Scout–Atticus’ daughter and the viewpoint character–has to play a cured ham in a ridiculous teacher-written school pageant(1)(here’s another beautiful send-up of those mediocre would-be-playwright teachers, whose reach exceeds their grasp, who annually inflict their lack of talent on innocent students and parents), she and her brother Jem must walk home on a dark night with Scout still imprisoned in the ham costume. It is at this point when the morally and genetically bankrupt Bob Ewell strikes at Atticus through the lawyer’s children. The ludicrous ham costume both saves Scout’s life and prevents her escape. Ewell knocks Jem unconscious and starts in on Scout, but someone pulls him off of her. Scout, stuck in the remains of the ham costume and somewhat dazed, confused and battered, discovers–but fails to identify at first–the corpse of Ewell, then manages to wander homeward in time to see someone carrying Jem toward the Finch residence and in through the door. Liberated from her cloth-and-chicken-wire straitjacket, Scout sees her rescuer but does not make the connection at first. Only when Sheriff Heck Tate discovers Ewell dead and questions Scout about the assault does she figure it out: her rescuer is ‘Boo’ Radley, the town misfit who is never seen outside his house but leaves small gifts for her and her brother in a tree hole.
And yes, Radley is a misfit. He is barely verbal, cannot tolerate sunlight although he is not an albino, and has a savant talent for soap carving. Earlier in the book, the Radley family appointed one of their own from Pensacola to look after him after his parents died. (Today, we would diagnose him as autistic.) Boo had to overcome his shyness, his rigid pattern of confinement to the house and his sensory integration issues to save the two people he cared about the most: Scout and Jem. This Quasimodo of a man exercises more courage in one evening than the articulate, accomplished Atticus does in the entire book. In short, he takes out the trash with a kitchen knife under the sternum.
In the end, Sheriff Tate and Atticus(who thinks Jem did it) argue about the forensics, which conclusively prove that Boo improved the species by removing one of nature’s obvious mistakes. Heck Tate decides to rule the death an accident, because he didn’t like how Tom was railroaded(he dies in an escape attempt) and because the perjurer responsible is now dead. Mr. Tate decides also to suppress Boo Radley’s part in the matter so the poor shy fellow can have some peace, a small but appropriate reward for the odd, reticent man who did right by his neighbors and risked everything to do it.
Somewhere I remember Harper Lee saying that Mockingbird was a romance. You’ve got to look deep, but it’s there: Boo had a crush on Scout, but the mores and manners of his time, along with his handicaps, restricted his expression thereof. In the end, he did the noblest thing anyone could do for one’s beloved; he defended, and saved, her life at risk of his own.
If the reader of this review has read the book he or she will notice that I concentrate on the end rather than the beginning. This is because, although Mockingbird does indeed concern itself with the shabby way decent black people in the post-Reconstruction South were treated, it is really more a story about working around the system to solve social problems as well as one can… and fighting that system whenever needful. Tom did not, though his death was tragic, die in vain; it is presumed his family carries on and one suspects(perhaps I will find out in Go Set a Watchman) that the Ewells do not fare so well; they inhabit the lower tail of the moral and mental bell curve that is humanity. Atticus Finch fought with words and legal action; he failed. Boo Radley fought with a kitchen knife; he succeeded.
Footnote (1): The title of the overblown school pageant in Mockingbird: Per ardua ad astra, or ‘By hard work, to the stars.’ It’s the state motto of Kansas. I don’t think the character knew it–and would have despised it as juvenile and childish had she known–but the Golden Age of science-fiction was then in flower, and that old Latin phrase would gain new meaning very soon. What was an expression of bloviating hubris in the Thirties became a very real human endeavor–upstate in Huntsville–within thirty years. Scout should’ve worn a space suit instead of a ham suit.
In my 5th grade year, the music teacher designed a patriotic musical, in which each grade, 1 through 6, was forced to participate. Because of her musical meddling, I still foul up on the chorus to Battle Hymn of the Republic, so I feel Scout’s pain. Thankfully, I didn’t have to be a leg of ham, although I was a revenant (zombie) in our 5th grade class production of an old Scottish ghost story.