To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic of modern American literature. Simply told, it depicts small town life in racially-charged Alabama during the Great Depression and manages to capture the innocence of childhood whilst dealing with issues of racial prejudice and injustice. The hero of the book, Atticus Finch, is an unassuming man, a widower and father to two young children. A lawyer, Atticus has no qualms in defending a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman. In the Alabama of the 30s the verdict is a foregone conclusion. However, at great personal risk to himself and his family, Atticus refuses to defend Tom in name only and does the best he can to get Tom acquitted despite the surmountable odds he faces in doing so.
One of the most moving scenes in the book is when Atticus Finch is leaving court having lost the case. Atticus’ children, his son Jem and daughter Scout, are up in the upper gallery where the black spectators are obliged to sit in these segregated times. As Atticus passes, all the black members of the public stand up as one to show their silent respect for Atticus with Reverend Sykes chiding the children who have remained seated: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.
Atticus is the type of moral hero we’d probably secretly like to be. Not afraid to do the right thing even though he knows the odds are stacked against him whilst managing to take it all in his stride and be nobly self-effacing.
In addition, as the story unfolds from a child’s viewpoint, not only are we made aware of the casual racism that filtered into everyday life back then; the dichotomy of negative attitudes towards black people and the valued role some of them nevertheless played in people’s daily lives such as that of Atticus’s maid, Calpurnia but also the illogicality and irrationality of the racism which permeates the book. The book makes clear that Tom is not guilty. It also makes clear that he can’t be found innocent given the attitudes and prejudices of the times he is living in. If such a system is so clearly unjust, then it is evident that these attitudes have to change. The book is a call for precisely that to happen and it is no coincidence that this book was published in 1960 right bang in the middle of the American civil rights movement.
For years Harper Lee’s novel was used as proof of the adage that we all have one good book in us. As for decades this was Harper Lee’s only published novel, it deftly proved that, in her case at least, that saying was spot-on. Whatever the reception of her latest novel might be, nothing can take away from the fact that in To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee created one of the best American novels of the 20th century.