Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Introducing UNSHELVED: 'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee

That's right folks, it's time to unveil a new feature here on The Secret Thread: a new and occasional series of posts I am calling Unshelved. Each Unshelved post will feature an old and, either on a personal or even a national basis, forgotten classic that I have pulled off of the shelf to read (or re-read, as the case may be), so that I can then report back on what I got from the experience, if anything. There have been series' like this in other publications of course, from The Washington Post Book World's "Second Reading" series to Paste magazine's "Dusted Off" column -- the latter of which, coincidentally, will be featuring a review from TST's own Mutt Ploughman in an upcoming issue (his review of Philip K. ####'s novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge, which was posted here in January: see the Archives section, right hand column to read it!). But none of those other series will have the special Secret Thread touch that millions of you have come to depend upon...

Um, right. OK. Without further ado, let's get started with the series... shall we?

To kick off TST's Unshelved series, I have selected a book I recently finished listening to on audio (I confess, occasionally I listen to rather than read books, but with an hour commute each way to work every day, I can't think of a better way to use that otherwise dead time!): Harper Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. I first read this classic and beloved story in my sophomore year of high school, and I hadn't touched it or even thought about it much since. It was one of the very few assigned books in high school that I actually read (William Golding's Lord of the Flies is another one, which had much more of an impact on me at the time, I recall, which makes sense given its shocking subject matter), and I remember enjoying it at the time, but that's about all I could remember. So in picking it up now in my mid-30's, it was almost like coming to it fresh. At any rate, I'm going to do these Unshelved entries in a bit more structured, less rambling way than I usually do in my posts, so let's just get right into it:

Plot Synopsis:
As just about everybody knows, To Kill A Mockingbird is a sort of coming-of-age tale about two young children who are being raised by their father (having lost their mother) in a small town in rural Alabama during the Depression years. The novel's memorable narrator is young Scout (Jean Louise) Finch, daughter of Atticus Finch, the town's one lawyer, and kid sister to Jem (Jeremy) Finch. Scout is a precocious five years old at the beginning of the story, and probably reaches the age of 6 or 7 by the story's end. The novel recounts the adventures of their youth growing up in this very small Southern town with its inherent charms and prejudices. All seems idyllic and nostalgic -- until Atticus is assigned to defend a poor black man who's been charged with raping a white woman, and in doing so exposes the flaws in our legal system and not-so-hidden bigotries that thrive just under the surface in the hearts of the townspeople. The story is a beautifully told, poignant tale of innocence lived and lost... and Lee's charming prose, authentic dialog and clear-eyed, non-sentimental insight into human nature establish the book as a bonafide American classic.

There were several things that struck me upon re-visiting this tale as an adult. First, how funny it is: I don't remember this aspect of the novel from tenth grade, probably because I was too much an ignorant moron to get most of the jokes (I'm only slightly less ignorant and foolish now, of course, but maybe enough to help in this case!). Much of the genius and enjoyment in this book comes from Lee's inspired narration of events through Scout's inimitable tomboyish perspective -- she goes from crawling into her Daddy's lap and asking questions in one minute, to whooping some smaller boy's butt in the playground in the next... and sees both as natural as sunlight! And as her brother grows up and starts to distance himself from her a bit, she begins to realize the differences between the sexes -- both in terms of natural fact and artificial, societal expectations. Her refusal to accept either provide for some amusing and poignant moments.

I was also pleasantly surprised upon this second reading to discover what a wise book To Kill A Mockingbird is. Perhaps this has a lot to do with the fact that I'm a father to three young children of my own now -- for in the character of Atticus Finch, we have a father who loves his children and does the best he can to raise them with integrity, humility and a sense of morality, while always admitting his own flaws and weaknesses. He is a towering figure in the lives of his children for all the right reasons -- and as they witness him defend the defenseless in the face of almost universal opposition and bigotry from the rest of the town, they are provided with a priceless demonstration of integrity and compassion that, you sense, will be with them forever. And the fact that not everything comes up roses in the end -- by a long shot! -- seems to only strengthen and intensify the goodness and moral strength of Atticus' actions.

Reason it's worth reading (or re-reading):
Besides all of the above, this is simply a great story, told with wit, wisdom and a winsome spirit. Lee was clearly inspired in its telling, because its endurance in both popular and academic circles as a canonical work of American fiction continues on and appears to have no end in sight. It is not so much in the tale itself as in its telling -- somehow, even though you were likely not born in nor lived in such a place, the book makes you feel as if you were reliving your own memories of life in the rural South, and that things as rendered are precisely as you remember them. I realize that sounds strange, but Lee just seems to get all of the details right -- the descriptions of local characters, the buildings, the school, the churches, the sound of people's voices, the town traditions -- so much so that you can picture the Radley's dilapidated house, the good Southern ladies' gossip sessions-disguised-as-prayer-meetings, the wooden, non-air-conditioned one-room courthouse, or the ramshackle black Baptist church as if you'd been there yourself. I suppose if I had to choose one word to describe the key to Lee's success in this book, that word would be authenticity.

But more than anything else, what struck me about To Kill A Mockingbird, and what would make me recommend it to anyone, is its enduring moral message -- which is delivered in a totally unassuming, non-preachy way. This message is more or less embodied in the character of Atticus Finch, whose humble, world-weary yet hopeful servant leadership of his family is achieved through his actions, not his words. I was moved by his obvious love for his children, but also by his unwillingness to hold their hands through every little trial of life -- they are responsible for their own actions, and when they violate or neglect those responsibilities, Atticus does not shield them from the consequences.

Finally, Lee's triumph is to almost perfectly capture the emergence of a social conscience and the loss of innocence in the life, and voice, of a young child. Think about it: how difficult would it be to describe, even in your own life, the gradual dawning of a realization that people will try to hurt other people, that folks aren't always honest, or that sometimes justice is not served despite every indication to the contrary? (I was severly tested in this regard recently, as my eldest son, only 6 years old, came up to me at random one day and, picking up on something he had heard at school, asked : "Dad, why would somebody strap a bomb to themselves and then blow themselves in front of a bunch of other people?" Scrambling for an answer he could understand, I realized anew how incredibly difficult it is to explain the evil that exists in our world to young hearts, still blessedly protected by the fragile but beautiful armor of innocence...) Many books attempt to do so -- the "coming of age" tale is a cliche in its own right -- but hardly any in the last 100 years or so are as successful in the venture as this one is. All of this combines to explain why the book stays in your memory for long after you've read it, and why its lessons feel like truths that have been sleeping peacefully in your own heart for as long as you can remember. Like all great works of art, Harper Lee's timeless novel awakens those truths from their slumber, allowing you the chance to get re-aquainted with them all over again.

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