To Kill a Mockingbird

20 August 2014
Written by Diana Kenny
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In To Kill a Mockingbird, author Harper Lee uses memorable characters to explore civil rights and racism in the segregated south of the USA during the 1930s


To Kill a Mockingbird , by Harper Lee, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1964

I love this book and return to it every couple of years. The storyline never fails to move me and it occurred to me that there may be some of you who have never read it.

Written in the 1960s to the background of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King and the goal to remove racial segregation, the novel covers a period of three years in Alabama during the 1930s.

It is a truism that a writer writes of the things and people they know.  Lee most certainly does that; her father Amasa Lee – Atticus Finch in the novel - was a newspaper editor who became a lawyer. He himself defended a black father and son against an accusation of murder of a storekeeper but they were both hanged.

The story is told through the eyes of Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout. Scout lives with her older brother Jem, her father Atticus and black cook Calpurnia as her mother has died. Scout is six years old at the start of the novel and the events mainly concern the antics of the children and their summertime friend Dill (in real life Truman Capote). Together the children construct a bogie man character for Boo Radley, a next door neighbour who is never seen. He features in their stories and dares – who can get close enough to see him though the window? Jem keeps a worried eye on Atticus and Scout and Calpurnia cares for them all.

The later plot concerns Atticus’s acceptance of the challenge to represent a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of rape.  Scout is a smart, intelligent child and her account of events, although given in a child’s language, has with it an adult’s viewpoint. The novel is beautifly written with great warmth. Courage and justice are applauded and prejudice and injustice are shown to be what they are.

The two parts of the book, although seemingly quite different, come together at the conclusion. Packed with wisdom mostly dispersed though the role of Atticus, the book has a timeless quality, all the roles are well defined and I believe Atticus Finch would have to be one of the most memorable characters in American literature.

I must mention the movie. Gregory Peck played the central role of Atticus and before starting on the film Peck went to Alabama to meet the real Atticus, Lee’s father Amasa Lee. In gratitude for his performance Lee presented him with her father’s watch. It is a movie that stands proudly alongside the novel.

It is the only novel Harper Lee wrote and when asked the reason when she was in her seventies she replied:

 "Two reasons: one, I wouldn't go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again."

But let us leave the last word to Atticus and I urge you, if you have not already done so to read the book.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”




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