I have a collection of my absolute favorite books in a special corner of my library. I call it my ‘hall of fame’. I have lost count of how many times I have read the books there. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ figures in the top 5 of my list. It is the only Pulitzer prize winning book that I thought was perfect. It moved me so much. Each time I read it, I cried.
The story is set in a sleepy southern town of US called Maycomb in 1930s. The Civil war had ended but racism was still at its peak in the southern states. The story is told from the eyes of a 5 year old girl called Scout. She lives with her father Atticus who is a lawyer and older brother Jem. She shares a very special relationship with her father. It is her innocent but insightful observations of the world around her as she tries to make sense of the confused values and prejudices of people. It is a coming of age book with a difference. Unlike most books of this genre the loss of innocence is not sad and depressing, but rather sweet and hopeful.
Scouts father takes up the case of a black man who is accused of attempting to rape a white girl. The entire conservative southern community is up in arms against him for backing a black man. Scout and her brother are forced to endure many snide remarks even at school. The most moving conversation in the book is the one Scout has with her father regarding this subject.
“Scout,” said Atticus, “… it’s not fair for you and Jem, I know that, but sometimes we have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down—well, all I can say is, when you and Jem are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn’t let you down. This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
“Atticus, you must be wrong…”
“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…”
“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
And here is my favorite argument he presents in the court while defending the black man
The witnesses for the state have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption—the evil assumption—that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber.
“Which, gentlemen, we know is in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson’s skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women—black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire.”
Inspite of the case being completely baseless, the jury finds the defendant guilty and sentences him to death. Later on in school, Scout’s teacher, Miss Gates talks about Hitler and how he persecuted Jews. Scout is unable to reconcile the double standards. She tries to make sense of it by talking to her brother
“Well, coming out of the courthouse that night Miss Gates was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin‘ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an‘ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home—”
Another one of my favorite scenes from the book, when Atticus tries to explain to his friend why it is important for him to live his principles
“Heck, if this thing’s hushed up it’ll be a simple denial to Jem of the way I’ve tried to raise him. Sometimes I think I’m a total failure as a parent, but I’m all they’ve got. Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so I can look squarely back at him… if I connived at something like this, frankly I couldn’t meet his eye, and the day I can’t do that I’ll know I’ve lost him. I don’t want to lose him and Scout, because they’re all I’ve got.”
The book is a series of very sensitively stung incidents. It is not preachy, it is not idealistic yet it is positive and hopeful. This is best captured in the last lines of the book. Scout tells her father about how she misunderstood her neighbor and in the end he turned out to be such a nice man. And Atticus replies “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”
I don’t think any review can do justice to a book of this caliber. Even as I was writing it I god goose bumps and tears in my eyes. If you have not read the book do read it. I guarantee that you cannot but love it.