To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is the timeless classic about growing up in Alabama during the 1930s. The main character is a little girl named Jean Louise Finch or Scout as she liked to be called, who lives with her brother Jeremy “Jem” and her father Atticus. Scout, Jem and their friend Dill Harris are obsessed with their neighbor Boo Radley, who has been a shut in for many years. They don’t know what he looks like but they have heard many stories about him. They have heard that Boo Radley is an eccentric and has been forced to stay inside by his family. The children attempt to make contact with Boo but are discouraged by their father. Boo’s life is intertwined with the Finch children even though they don’t know it.
The Finch family faces major upheaval when Atticus, who is a lawyer, is asked to represent Tom Robinson in a rape trial. Tom Robinson is an African American man accused of raping Mayella Ewell who is a white woman. This was a time of racial segregation in America and racial tensions were high. Some of the towns folk would rather see Tom get lynched than go to jail. Friends and family disapprove of Atticus representing Tom Robinson but he refuses to drop his client. Scout even gets into fights at school, defending her father.
Almost all the towns people show up to watch the trial including Scout, Jem and Dill. Scout is too young to understand but everything is noted so that the reader knows what is occurring. It becomes clear that Tom is innocent but the racist attitudes may stop justice from happening.
I watched the movie before and you can read my review here. I enjoyed the movie and wanted to read the book to gain a better insight. I thought the book was excellent and it was easy to see why it was a classic. The most interesting part of the book was the trial especially the testimonies and the background of the Ewells. The first mention of the Ewells comes from when Scout starts school for the first time and there’s one of the Ewell children in her class. The Ewells are a poor family who are illiterate and dysfunctional. The child is foul mouthed and leaves after just one day at school. The truant officer after years of trying to get the Ewell kids to school is finally satisfied if they turn up at the start of the school year and have their name put on the roll.
The head of the family is Bob Ewell, who is father to numerous children. He is a drunk and an outcast who beats his kids and lets them run wild. He goes to the trial expecting to be treated like a hero but becomes angry by the disgust that people show him when the truth gets revealed. He is deeply racist of the African Americans as he is only second to them in the order of social standing. It’s sad to read about a person who blames everyone else for his own misdeeds.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help thinking of the dysfunctional families I have met and how the cycle of poverty and dysfunction continues. The Ewell child in the book reminded me of a child I knew when I was a student teacher. The child had been skipping school for so long that the family was going to be taken to court. So that child finally came to school after being away for almost the whole of the school year. We were on the last month of school at the time. The child could not count up to ten, he could write his name but he could not read at all. The sad part was he was in grade 7. The child didn’t have any learning disorders to account for his illiteracy.
He was illiterate because he didn’t go to school.
I read his entire school file and learnt all about his background. He also belonged to big family and all of them had trouble going to school. When the children did arrive at school, they would be dirty, unwashed and smelling of urine, without any school equipment or lunch. The report showed that numerous times, the school tried to intervene but to no avail. The family was always on the move so they were hard to track down. One time, the father was questioned and he said, “You’ve got no right to tell me how to raise my children.” And to “Mind your own business”.
The child had the same rude attitude as his father. He instigated bad behaviour which escalated quickly. I never saw him again after that one day when he went to school. He wasn’t suspended or anything. He just didn’t turn up the next day. Anyway, I felt deeply sorry for the child because of all the lost opportunities he would have for not having an education. I do hope that one day, something gets through to him and he’s able to break the cycle.
The Boo Radley side plot reminded me how there’s always that one place in the neighborhood that’s pretty spooky. Sometimes, I think it’s my destiny to end up as old eccentric that scares the neighborhood kids. The Finch children’s attempts to speak to him is to be expected as children are so curious. I probably would have done the same things as them at that age. I hung around my older brother when I was growing up and I could picture him poking around the Boo house just like Jem did. At the end, it is revealed that he’s a misunderstood character but he wants to be left alone just the same.
I recommend this book to anyone wanting to read a classic American book. I am aware of the sequel, Go Set a Watchman and will read it someday. The movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird is pretty faithful to the book and a classic in its own right.