Not a how-to book

“When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

“But have you any idea of the societal, literary and intellectual pressure there is riding on me reading this book?” I whined, clutching the small novel in my hands and staring at it, wondering if it only got to 30,000,000 sold because it’s forced on every American schoolchild. Yes, I had made it twenty-five years without reading what is often said to be the most read book in history and now, finally, egged on by numerous people around me and a general sense of duty, I have read To Kill A Mockingbird.

It’s not that we didn’t do classics at school, but we didn’t do this one. At school I was subjected to the usual Shakespeare (in my case, Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth), Of Mice and Men and Far From The Madding Crowd. I despair at some of the books that are chosen for schools, I really do, and I think that it really affects how many children grow up to be adults with a love of reading. If you’re forced to read Thomas Hardy, whom has, in my opinion, absolutely no literary merit whatsoever and absolutely no place in modern society, then you’re going to be put off. I think Mockingbird is a more popular choice across the pond, given that it is about their history, but that’s not to say no one here does it.

The plot is simple enough although, I confess, that given the popularity and ubiquity of this book, I wasn’t really aware of it. In fact, I knew startlingly little about it, aside from a vague shape of the plot, a few character names and a location. For those of you who still don’t know what it’s about, let me explain.

The protagonist is Scout Finch, a young girl living in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s, narrating about events of her childhood from an adult point of view. She is a very intelligent child with an interest in everything around her. She lives with her brother Jem and father Atticus and enjoys reading and playing games in equal measure. Atticus is a lawyer who is probably more accurately defined as the main character as opposed to Scout herself. He becomes tasked with defending a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman, a case that to the prejudiced eyes of the townsfolk should be sorted out within a matter of seconds. Fortunately, Atticus is very shrewd and he isn’t going to let it slide.

Scout, Jem and their friend Dill, meanwhile, have become interested in the Radley House next door, where a man called Arthur “Boo” Radley supposedly still lives but is never seen. They try to get him to come out, with little success, but they soon find evidence that he is there and isn’t the monster that some of the townsfolk seem to believe he is.

I was far from impressed with the start of the book, honestly, regretting my choice to read it. But I pressed on, if only to get it out of the way, and found that, actually, I sort of understand why and how it has lasted. My trepidation comes from the fact that this book combines all of the things I find boring – child narrators, classic novels, arguments about race and whatnot – so I was sure that Harper Lee and I were never going to be able to get along. The scenes in the courtroom with Atticus defending his client Tom Robinson, however, were sheer masterpieces. The characters burst to life and I found myself rushing along with the trial, enjoying every twist and turn of the way.

Once the trial was over, the book began to lose it again, and I coasted through to the end with little enthusiasm once more. The very end, however, left me with that warm glow that you get after you know you’ve read something special. Because, whether I wanted to or not, I actually did enjoy the book. Atticus Finch in particular is a marvellous creation and a wonderful man. Struggling to bring up his children alone, I think he’s done a masterful job. I don’t care so much for Scout, Jem or Dill, but then again I never imagined I would.

The messages in the book are brutal and not so subtle, but very well done. There’s a discussion at one point of how can someone think that Hitler rounding up the Jews is disgusting, but that very same person can think that black people are beneath them and not see the hypocrisy in their statements. The first glimmers of equality are showing but people are still aware that they have a long way to go, allowing for a great moment with a character called Dolphus Raymond, who explains to the children something about humans that they hadn’t yet understood.

I’m pleased I’ve read it, and I think you should give it a go if you haven’t already because sometimes the masses are right.