Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Book Review: To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)


A story of growing up in the deep American south in the early 1930's, with racial discrimination rampant and the Great Depression casting a heavy shadow on the economic well-being of an entire nation, To Kill A Mockingbird gets better with the passing years. Told from the perspective of Scout (real name: Jean Louise) Finch, a pre-teen tomboy, and taking place over three summers, the book recounts three distinct yet seamless childhood adventures that, combined, paint a vivid picture of transition from child to young adult in a turbulent world equally grappling with major upheavals.

The first adventure has Scout, her brother Jem (Jeremy) and their friend Dill causing mischief by trying to penetrate the scary mystery of Boo Radley, the neighbour who never leaves his house. The second adventure revolves around the elderly and intolerable Mrs. Dubose, another neighbour who gets her clutches into Scout and Jem and forces them to unwittingly help her.

The third and by far the most prominent storyline places the spotlight on Atticus Finch, the idealistic and progressive father of Scout and Jem. A caring lawyer way ahead of his time in terms of bringing up his children and understanding the trends of history, he is assigned to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Given that the word of a black man in the South of the 1930's is worth next to nothing, Atticus knows that this case is lost before it starts, but that the battle that he and his family will fight is much greater than the individual court case.

The drama of the courthouse, and the ripple effect that it causes in the life of the community at large and more specifically on the life of Scout and Jem, bring To Kill A Mockingbird to a climax that is simply shattering in its pure, raw, emotional impact.

Harper Lee's prose majestically uses the language of the south to express the innocence and honesty of a young girl describing the world around her with equal amounts delight and bewilderment. A large number of secondary characters revolve around the life of Scout, Jem, and Atticus, and their colourful descriptions and sometimes crucial interventions bring the community of Maycomb, Alabama to life. Lee weaves into the book searing commentary on race, class, religion, community, family, upbringing and a society that will need to change or die, without ever allowing the focus to shift away from Scout's experience of the world.

From the perspective of the year 2010 with a black President in the White House, To Kill A Mockingbird gains a further level of poignancy and meaning. The incredible world brought to life by Harper Lee is both a million long years and a remarkable seventy short years removed from today.

323 pages.
Published in paperback by Harper Perennial.





Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 30.
All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

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