To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

by Harper Lee

You may have read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. It's worth a reread.

Along with being a poignant tale of race relations in the Deep South in the pre–civil rights era, the book is a classic story about the confusion and joys of growing up, a young girl's discomfort with the constraints of femininity, a parent's heroism, and the mythology surrounding a misfit who turns out to be heroic himself. It's all told in utterly beguiling and insightful voice of Jean Louise (aka "Scout") Finch, who is five when the action begins and nine when it concludes.

Scout and her brother Jem are being brought up by their widowed father, Atticus Finch, a lawyer, state representative, and descendant of a long line of Finches in Maycomb County, Alabama. Aided by the family's housekeeper, Calpurnia, Atticus is doing the best he can as a 50-year-old single parent. His children adore him but think him different from other fathers — too old to toss around a ball, not a drinker or a smoker or a poker player. Atticus also thinks differently from most of Maycomb, and  Scout and Jem gradually find out how much courage that can require.

Dominating the early chapters of the book are the fascination of Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill with Arthur "Boo" Radley, a neighbor whose family has kept him indoors for almost two decades after a run-in with the law. The children's imaginations attribute all manner of malevolence to Boo until a mystery giver starts leaving them presents in a hollow of a tree. The possibility of Boo's being the benefactor makes them even more curious.

Boo recedes into the background when Atticus's defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman takes center stage. Although the outcome of the trial is not surprising — this is the South in 1935, after all — the fallout for the Finch family (as well as the family of the accused) makes for gripping reading. When things are supposedly getting back to normal, repercussions from the case erupt in a suspenseful climax in which Boo comes out from hiding to be a savior.

To Kill a Mockingbird is so wonderfully told, its tone is so warm, its plot so powerful, its characters so original, its balance of seriousness and humor so perfect, that one would wish to read more from Harper Lee. Unfortunately, this novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was her only one.


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