320pp, paperback, £6.99
Reviewed by Charlotte Moore
I was worried about this assignment. I last read Mockingbirdwhen I was in my teens and, though it wasn’t sacred to me as it is to thousands, even millions, of readers, I regarded it with affection and respect. Would my rereading uncover all sorts of uglinesses that my youthful self had overlooked? Would I dare to express criticism honestly, knowing that would expose me to a literary lynch mob that not even Scout Finch herself could disperse?
I needn’t have worried. It’s really, truly good. It has stood the test of time-indeed, the passing of time has added its own layers of interest. First published just before the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, but set in the segregated Alabama of the 1930s, it did a great deal to overturn entrenched attitudes towards race and justice. And yet its long-concealed sequel, Go Set a Watchman, will appear this summer in an America rocked by bitter demonstrations over the killing of black citizens by the police.
But race isn’t the novel’s only subject- it may not even be its main subject. I had remembered it as being mainly about Tom Robinson’s trial, but we’re a long way in before that story gets underway. It’s about childhood, single parenthood, ingrained sexism, poverty, isolation, Southern history, climate, religion, law, education, and a whole lot more. Above all, it’s about courage.
Courage, Harper Lee shows us through Scout’s half-innocent eyes, is no good without humanity. Most of the characters have courage. It’s obvious in Atticus as he sits outside the jail, protecting Tom Robinson, or in Miss Maudie, confronting the smoking ruins of her house. In an episode I’d completely forgotten, Atticus names drooling, foul-tempered Mrs Dubose as ‘the bravest person I ever knew’ for her struggle to conquer morphine addiction. Sheriff Heck Tate is brave, little Dill is brave when he runs away from home, even the pitiful Mayella Ewell shows courage of a wrong-headed sort when she defies the ‘fine fancy gentlemen’ of the court. But it is Scout’s instinctive courage when she faces the lynch mob and reminds them of their humanity that is the moral core of the book: ‘ “Hey, Mr Cunningham...I go to school with Walter...He’s your boy, ain’t he?...Tell him hey for me, won’t you?” ‘. This is what makes the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck stand up.
And then there’s Boo Radley. The feared recluse, the living ‘haint’, imprisoned in his own house because, in Jem ‘s words, ‘he doesn’t have anywhere to run off to’, has, deservedly, become the most famous of Harper Lee’s creations. He is at once a symbol and a real person. Maycomb is a small community, but it is populated by strangely isolated figures. Widowers, spinsters, unwanted children, lodgers; the friendless Ewells, picking through rubbish at the dump; black servants like Calpurnia ,who has a family life in the background, but who must spend the vast majority of her waking hours working for her white employees. Boo Radley is on one level an embodiment of the aloneness experienced by so many. But when Scout and Jem are under threat, and in a supreme act of courage and compassion he steps out of the shadows to save them, the essence of the novel is expressed in one sublime moment.
There are so many details I’d forgotten, or failed to notice. Dolphus Raymond is interesting; the white man who lives with a black woman and pretends to be a drunkard because that’s the only way his preferred way of life can be accepted by the other whites. Knowing, as apparently we do, that Dill is the young Truman Capote, the scene where Raymond lets Dill in on his secret becomes, perhaps, an epiphany for Capote, showing the possibility of a parallel life. Then there’s the moment in court, when Tom Robinson describes his encounter with Mayella Ewell; ‘ “She says she never kissed a grown man before an’s she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her papa do to her don’t count.’ “ Nothing is made of this barely-there whiff of incestuous abuse; it opens up the abyss of Mayella’s appalling existence, just once- but once is enough.
Like her characters, Harper Lee is brave. She doesn’t make everything come right for us; Tom Robinson’s fate is miserable, Boo Radley doesn’t sit sipping tea on the porch for ever more, but disappears back into the shadows. Atticus Finch’s tremendous stand against injustice doesn’t transform anything overnight. Equally, Lee doesn’t reward us with a wallow in grand tragedy. The world of Mockingbird is more nuanced than I remembered, or expected. Even the too-perfect Atticus is obtuse and wrong about Bob Ewell’s death, which is a nice touch. It’s not a perfect novel, and I could pick holes, but I’m not inclined to. It’s so engaging, so humane, so funny, and so real, that I’ll just let it alone.