For whatever reason, this book slipped through my hands and my educational upbringing multiple times. I never read it in high school, or even middle school; it was required reading for 8th grade at my high school, but I enrolled in the 9th grade, and I spent my 8th grade year juicing Johnny Tremain to a pulp. So there’s that excuse. The other is that I was not once but twice intimidated by the word “assuaged” on the first page. I think the first time was at around age 12, and the second time was at some point in high school. I let it go. And then I came back to it, remembering Gregory Peck’s gorgeous hair and glasses in the movie version, and forgetting the rest of the plot. I’m glad I brought everything full circle.
This book is considered by pretty much everyone to be Required Reading for Americans, and rightfully so. It captures the innocence of childhood from the perspective of a somewhat jaded, ridiculously intelligent adult, looking back on her life and wondering how she coped with trauma so matter-of-factly. The narrative perspective of Scout Finch, feisty tomboy, is one that I wish I could hear in other books. Sadly, part of Harper Lee’s (no relation) claim to fame is that she never wrote any other novels. At least she went out on top.
Of course, this book isn’t just about looking back, though it does force the introspective reader to examine his own observant tendencies (or lack thereof). It’s about tolerance, respect, all of those warm and fuzzy things. And it manages to make an incredibly sad story——about the SPOILER ALERT unjust accusation and subsequent death of a black man found guilty of raping a white woman in a small town——into something incredibly manageable, exciting, and emotionally uplifting. I was excited when the kids were chasing after their quasi-muse, Boo Radley. I was frightened when they had to read to a threatening old lady. I felt like I missed the trial, too, when Scout stepped out of the courtroom to attend to her friend Dill. I was in on the action without even realizing how in I was, and I suspect I’m not the only reader who has felt this way over the last several decades. At the end of this book, I wanted to meet Scout as she is now, grown up and with her head completely wrapped around her experiences. I also wanted to meet Jem and Dill, and most of all Atticus Finch. Thank goodness for movies.
As I’ve sort of grown accustomed to doing over the past few book reviews, I’d like to share some of my favorite sentences from TKAM. I’m not sure why I’ve been inspired to do this, other than I’d like to remember exceptional instances of wordplay for my own personal enjoyment, but I hope whoever’s reading this also finds these bits as impressive as I do.
p. 66 // “‘Jem, I ain’t ever heard of a nigger snowman,’ I said. ‘He won’t be black long,’ he grunted.”
p. 156 // “Local opinion held Mr. Underwood to be an intense, profane little man, whose father in a fey fit of humor christened Braxton Bragg, a name Mr. Underwood had done his best to live down. Atticus said naming people after Confederate generals made slow steady drinkers.”
p. 217 // “‘I wish Bob Ewell wound’t chew tobacco,’ was all Atticus said about it. According to Miss Stephanie Crawford, however, Atticus was leaving the post office when Mr. Ewell approached him, cursed him, spat on him, and threatened to kill him.”
p. 269 // “‘Mr. Finch,t here’s just some kind of men you have to shoot before you can say hidy to ’em. Even then, they ain’t worth the bullet it takes to shoot ’em. Ewell ‘as one of ’em.'”
And there you have it. Southern Gothic speech at its finest. Do yourself a favor and don’t wait THIS long to read a classic.