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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The slowly creeping insight

Too Much HappinessToo Much Happiness by Alice Munro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What is amazing is how much Munro can make out of so little, the lives of observant but unexceptional people, most of them in and around London, Ontario, in the 1990s or 2010s, who perhaps once in their lives have experienced an exceptional event. Within this restricted fictional territory, the author finds innumerable variations.

After the first few stories I was hoping for a change of scenery and skipped to the last, and title, story of the collection, "Too Much Happiness," and was surprised by something quite different. Here the protagonist is an entirely exceptional person and so far from contemporary Canada she probably could not even imagine the Ontario forests and suburbs. The Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) was the first woman to earn a doctorate in a European university at a time when women weren't admitted even to sudy in universities (summa cum laude, University of Göttingen, 1874). Kovalevskaya's extraordinary triumphs and disappointments, including difficult romance with another Russian intellectual exile, all really occurred. The fictional imagination is in making us feel as though we are she, living all these frustrations and sometimes wild hopes, until the fatal "too much happiness."

This is not the only wonderful story in the collection. Other favorites of mine included "Wood," which seems to understand a man's loneness — his need to be alone, but in a place where he feels himself as part of something greater — as clearly as Munro's other stories understand women's ways of relating to, and sometimes, avoiding one another. "Some Women" and "Child's Play" are especially about that complicated ballet. "Free Radicals" is another memorable story — or rather, two memorable stories, first of a woman's sudden and unexpected widowhood, and then of a startling irruption into her life that seems to reconfigure the meaning of everything. But even in this story, the conclusion is not an event but the protagonist's sudden understanding of events in a new way, even though she, or he, or we, may not be able to describe just what that new understanding is.

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