Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

My 14-year old signature is in the front cover of this paperback book, assigned reading in my freshman or sophomore year of high school. Beyond my signature there aren’t many marks in the book. A few brackets around passages I either thought or was told were important, mute testimony to my reticence to deface books, a habit I continue today except for theological commentaries.

I don’t remember writing my name there or making those brackets. I’m not sure what class it was a part of or who the teacher was, just as I didn’t remember the story at all beyond the basics of the key character names. But my youngest – now almost 15 himself – is participating in a book club with some other home school kids and this was the book chosen. So we as a family read it together, aloud.

It’s not a difficult read, but it’s a beautiful one.

Harper Lee’s ability to weave a cultural landscape presented through the eyes of a young child is impressive, to say the least. She depicts the rural Southern attitudes and actions of her own childhood, actions and attitudes under fierce scrutiny as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum (the book was first published in 1960). Lee portrays the difficulties of various ways of rejecting the racism embedded in aspects of Southern culture. Some do so through legal means. Others do so physically, or through complex personas. Lee holds up a mirror and allows the reader to determine for themselves whether Southern race-relations in the 1930’s were ideal.

It’s at times an uncomfortable book to read. Certainly even when I read it as a boy the terms used liberally through the book for African Americans were considered taboo. More so even today when professionals using the terms in purely academic ways can be excoriated as though they are actually racist. We were cautious to make sure the doors and windows were closed while I was reading it aloud, lest a neighbor misunderstand what we were doing or what I was saying. If you’re considering reading this, it’s an interesting exercise to monitor your own interactions with the text and the language.

The subject matter is adult – there is violence, abusive language, racist language (both intentionally and unintentionally), and a rape trial. But Lee’s conveyance of these themes is not lurid, and shouldn’t be problematic for teens with some additional explanation and contextualization. As it is written through the eyes of a child the language is relatively simple (though even there the great divide in language skills over the last 60+ years is saddening!) and shot through with genuinely hilarious moments that make it a good read for a broad audience.

I’m so glad I reread this, as essentially I read it for the first time. I appreciated the opportunities for conversation and discussion it created for our family and it would serve such ends admirably for any book club.

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