To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The voice of the perky, inquisitive, acutely observant Scout Finch from age 6 to 9 captures the reader so strongly as to hold together a whole string of disparate episodes — originally conceived by the author as separate short stories. Mainly, we get to know various characters of a poor little Alabama town during the Depression, their peculiar rituals and class and racial prejudices, and their sometimes redeeming acts of generosity. In this, it is more like Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer, another child's-eye view of a southern small town told as a series of anecdotes, than like Twain's later and more tightly structured Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Scout's most piquant observations of hypocrisy, neurosis, arrogance, or cowardice are of the white folks she knows best. But she also reports with fascination the courage and kindness of a few individuals, including especially her father Atticus Finch, a neighbor woman, Maudie, and the Finches' black maid Calpurnia. A particularly beautiful moment is Scout's visit with Calpurnia to her First Purchase AME Church, a revelation to this protected white girl of black devotion and dignity and a whole community close by but separate from the little white hamlet.

The book is best remembered for one episode that is expanded to extend over several chapters and which is a pleasing, though historically misleading fable: the trial of a black laborer accused of rape of a poor white woman, and his defense by Scout's father Atticus. Sadly, nothing like the judicial fairness of the Maycomb judge, the opportunity of the defendant to legal defense and serious cross-examination of the plaintiff ever happened or could happen in Alabama in the 1930s in a black-on-white rape case. What Harper Lee evidently had in mind when she wrote it was the famous Scottsboro Boys trial in 1933, where no such judicial niceties occurred. But there were defense attorneys — mostly northerners — who, a bit like Atticus Finch in the novel, made the effort, often at the risk of their own lives.

But it is the voice that saves this and all the stories in the book. You have to love this tomboy when she tells you in a hurt voice that, when she tried to hold her big brother back from some dangerous adventure, "Jem told me I was being a girl…" Or when she observes, back in her white church, "the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergymen."

On the Scottsboro boys, see the NYT November 21, 2013, article,  
Alabama Pardons 3 ‘Scottsboro Boys’ After 80 Years

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