Sunday, March 13, 2011

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Rating: 4 & 1/2 Stars

1961 Pulitzer Prize Winner

'Sakhi' Book Club March 2011 Pick

A Literary Classic has at least four elements – artistic quality, universal appeal, the ability to stand the test of time, and lasting relevance. That’s a textbook definition. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ certainly has three of the four qualities. However, to say that it has stood the test of time might be a little premature, since it was published just about fifty years ago. Nevertheless, there is something so profound about this book, that we can confidently assert that it will be read for a long time to come. This is a masterpiece of values that are not merely enduring, but timeless.

Haper Lee’s book starts in the most innocuous way. The narrator, Scout (Jean Louise Finch), remembers the events of the onset of her ninth year. Growing up in America’s Depression Era in the Deep South, Scout witnesses the community of her small Alabama town, Maycomb. Her life is a sheltered one - a loving father; a protective elder brother who is her best friend and mentor; and, a housekeeper who tries to keep her in line. Her concerns are typically childlike – apprehension about school, her relationship with her best friend - Dill, and her terrified fascination of the reclusive Boo (Arthur) Radley, who has assumed the form of neighborhood bogeyman in the imagination of Maycomb’s children. Over the course of the next two summers, bigger worries loom on the horizon. Her lawyer father, Atticus Finch, takes on the case of a black man accused of raping a white woman. This agitates the otherwise peaceful little county. The Finch family faces the rancor of people’s objection to Atticus, who is the court-appointed defense: 

“…Atticus aims to defend him. That’s what I don’t like about it.”

Atticus Finch has no illusions about the world he lives in, but neither does he have any intention of letting justice be railroaded, without everyone at least getting to hear the real truth, ugly as it may be. The bitterness caused by the case, its aftermath, the climax, and the final catharsis are told in a serene, slightly detached tone that is far more effective than angry rants about injustice.

The story is enhanced by the complete absence of literary bombast. The characters speak in the colloquial, sometimes whimsical cadence that characterizes the best of the Literature of the South, from Mark Twain downwards. The simple but incandescent prose is further illumined by the humor that is such an integral part of this book. Lee’s comic sense and timing is akin to the twinkling of fireflies on a summer evening. Blink, and you’ve missed a glimmer of beauty.

This book preceded the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fifty years after its publication, America can proudly claim to have made great strides in overcoming racial divides. After all, didn’t we just elect our first African-American/Biracial President? Progress certainly, but the United States is still a young country. It was not that long ago that Native Americans were driven from their territories, and marginalized in the very land of their birth. Not that long ago, that it was considered appropriate and necessary to exploit slave labor, or to inter Japanese-Americans on suspicion of their ethnicity. It took nearly a century after a devastating Civil War to recognize African Americans as full-fledged members of this country. The specter of racism has waned, not vanished. 

However, it's not merely in the political or social context that  ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is as relevant today as when it was first published. While this may be a novel as quintessentially American as apple pie, its themes of compassion, tolerance, faith, family, and community are boundless; beyond the claims of a particular era or nation. We would all be better for a slice of this pie.

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