There aren't a lot of books that I would categorize as a Must Read. I understand that there are differences in tastes and opinions. But sometimes there are stories that are told beautifully and powerfully and carry a message that everyone needs to hear. To Kill a Mockingbird is one such book. Everyone can benefit from its message. It tops the "must read" book lists for a reason: it is compelling and touches the soul.
The book is based in the late 1930s in small town Alabama, and it centers around Scout Finch. Scout starts as a 6-year-old who spends her days playing with her brother, Jem. They live with their father, Atticus, and their cook and housekeeper, Calpurnia. Scout and Jem get into normal childhood shenanigans for a couple of years, but their lives change when their father is assigned a case. A black man is accused of raping a white girl, and Atticus is called to represent him. Atticus is a good man and intends to defend the man just as he would any client. The resulting prejudice against the Finch family is the major plot point of the book.
It is a hard book to read. It takes complicated social issues and displays them through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl who doesn't really understand what's going on. She comprehends some, but mostly she is just the eyes and ears through which the reader views her world. She may not understand, but the reader certainly does.
I've read To Kill a Mockingbird before, but it's been about fifteen years. I was a young teenager then and probably didn't understand it all. I'd remembered the main premise, but I'd forgotten most of it. This time around I was reminded of one thing that I'd noticed even then: it is rough to see this story through the eyes of a child. She tries so hard to understand what's going on around her, but she doesn't have enough of the background information needed to really process everything. Watching her older brother and the adults around her talk about and react to events in the story enlightens the reader where the character is confounded.
Despite being told in a child's voice, this is not a children's book. It deals with very adult themes. For one, the N-word is used profusely. Other profanities are used, as well. Secondly, the main conflict arises from a girl who falsely claims she was raped by a black man. It isn't necessarily graphic, but it does talk about it. The children suffer the effects of their father's choices to stand for the right, and one of them is injured in the process. People die both peacefully and violently. I wouldn't even let a preteen read this book. But every older teenager should. This is one I highly recommend reading yourself before letting your kid read it. Decide on an appropriate age yourself.
This book is probably one of the most well-written books I've ever read. The children definitely speak a different dialect than "proper English," but it stays true to the dialect used. There is power in the simplicity of Scout's viewpoint. Once, when talking to her brother about how people treat each other, she said,
"No, everybody's gotta learn, nobody's born knowin'.... Naw, Jem, I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks."
It's a nice phrase, and had this been a different book, it would have been left at that. But this book doesn't accept platitudes and half truths. It's blatant. Jem's reply is illustrative:
"That's what I thought, too," he said at last, "when I was your age. If there's just one kind of folks, why can't they get along with each other? If they're all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?"
In a way, Scout is right: people are people. But, Jem is also right. The world is too complex for it to be categorized so simply. But it shouldn't be.
After I had gotten about halfway through the book, I couldn't see how there could be a happy ending to this book. And there wasn't really. There was closure and resolution to the story, but there wasn't a solution for the problem - because there is no easy solution for bigotry and racism and pride. People feel what they want to feel and believe what they want to believe. I'm sure this will be one of my most solemn posts, but this book left me feeling solemn. It is thought-provoking and raw. Despite its somber tone, everyone can benefit from its message as they think about themselves and how they treat and view other human beings.