Sunday, November 25, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Dust Jacket Description:

"One of the most best-loved stories of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into more than forty languages, sold more than thirty million copies worldwide, served as the basis of an enormously popular motion picture, and was voted one of the best novels of the twentieth century by librarians across the country. A gripping, heart-wrenching, and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, it views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father - a crusading local lawyer - risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime. "

Characters: Scout is feisty and intelligent, but it's her naive narrative rather than her personality that makes her worth paying attention to in the novel. I would have found her slightly annoying if there hadn't been so much else occurring. I related more to Jem and liked the subtle mentions of his struggle with morality of Maycomb. Side characters were exceptionally well crafted and always seemed to exist for a specific point - Miss Maudie acted as a strong Southern woman outside of traditional norms, Mrs. Dubose was a spin on the archetype of grouchy elderly person, and Aunt Alexandra was the epitome of Southern perfection.

Lee also does a fantastic job at writing the economic issues of Maycomb. She showed the differences between destitute families and those like the Finches, and also revealed the tensions between poor white people and the general black population. Mayella Ewell's character in particular does a great job of showing the issues in America regarding being a poor, white female.

The two most interesting characters of the piece are the men Scout is most fascinated by: the mysterious neighbour known as Boo Radley, and her father, Atticus. Scout and Jem's perspectives of Boo evolved constantly over the course of the book, and how they perceived the abused man is what reveals their progressing maturity. I loved this aspect of the book even when other parts left my critical brain turning gears. Boo's kindness in the face of trauma is touching, and Scout's empathy gives one hope for future generations.

But then we get to Atticus.

He's a beloved American character, and his morality is certainly above reproach in this novel. But it makes me wary that The Ultimate Novel About Racial Oppression has a clear white savior at its heart. Atticus defends a black man from rape allegations, acts as the moral centre of Maycomb, and is lauded for his clear conviction for equality. This is all fine and good, but where are the strong black characters? Tom Robinson is seen as a good man who suffers from his situation and nothing more. Calpurnia may be the main mother figure to the Finch household as their cook, but she follows the stereotype of black women in fiction. Black people are never truly given a voice in To Kill a Mockingbird. They are merely people to save.

Sure, there's no doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird is worth reading, and its perspective has validity in the race conversation. But why does it get to be The Book About Race when it's written by a white woman? It should not be the ruler of the conversation when it revolves around white people and white people's struggle with racial equality. I find TKM's dominance to be unbelievably weird and off-putting, because it very much comes from the privileged narrative. It is still an excellent book, but I disagree that it should be the first novel people go to in order to deconstruct racial issues in America - if that is its purpose, it does a pretty bad job. 3 flowers. 

Plot: Scout starts the novel by stating that through this story, she will explain how her brother obtained a childhood injury. This made the story pretty interesting from the beginning, and it gets better from there. The pacing is a little slow at first, but Lee does a great job of setting up the climax as we get closer to the end point. It's overall well crafted. 5 flowers. 

End: I didn't really have any emotional ties to this novel until the end. It's when Lee let go of the race element to the story and really focused on her empathy message. It was there that I could embrace the story and the beauty of Boo Radley. 5 flowers. 

Dust Jacket Description: It takes forever to actually get to the plot line, but hey, does the book really need a hook with its history? 2 flowers. 

Cover: I quite like the colours and structure of my cover. It just screams classic. 5 flowers. 

Overall: There is no doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird is brilliantly written and incredibly compelling. I just hesitant to think that it shows a fair portrayal of the racial struggle in America. It is one narrative. Go find more that are closer to the heart of the issue. 5 flowers for its craft, 3 for its merit as a story, and 4 flowers overall. 



  1. It shouldn't be "The Book About Race". But there can't be any such book. It's too deep and intricate a topic. It's a place to start though, and perhaps it speaks more to the legal history than anything else. But it's been a while since I read it too.

    1. Yeah, that's an excellent point. However, it still freaks me out that it's the most critically acclaimed and universally known book I'm aware of that discusses America's race issues. There should never be One Book about any issue, but there is bound to be a book best known about an issue. I don't think it should be TKM. It does do a good job regarding the legality, but again, it's from the white perspective.

  2. Even though it was written by a white woman I think her view of racial equality matters. There is a view from all sides. It showed white people what was happening {in a sense}. Would white people read a book about racial inequality written by a black person back then? Maybe not. I love the voice. I really love this book. One of my favorites from high school.

    1. Oh yeah, Lee's perception of racial equality should be heard, but it concerns me that it is STILL the dominant fictional voice on the subject. It was good for the time and still a well crafted story, but one would hope that another story would have gained in more popularity as time progressed. It's undeniably well-crafted, though.

  3. Veeeery interesting comments about how, despite TKAM's achievements, it's written from a place of privilege, and may in fact inadvertently reinforce that idea. We don't think that gets observed or talked about much. The four of us love the story and have read the book multiple times, but you've given us new food for thought. Thank you!

    And we're glad you enjoyed it. :)

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! It's easy to get wrapped up in the story - it's very well done. I'm glad my post was thought provoking for you. Love you guys and your blog!