Harper Lee’s classic 1960, Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird forces the reader to understand a few fundamental truths: nothing is ever all bad, justice does not always mean right, and the eyes of a child see more than you could ever remember.
Welcome to the Banned Library Banned Books Project where I am reading all 100 of the most banned and challenged books from 2000-2009. I started this project a few years ago and have done a few reviews here and there, but now I am going to buckle down and finish this with a more... let’s just call it consistency? Non-craptacular, maybe?
TKAM (I’m abbreviating because you try typing that over and over) is told from the perspective of Scout Finch as she remembers her family, friends and small town in 1936 Alabama. The race and class equality control the themes of this book, presented often alongside warmth and humor. A true classic of modern literature, TKAM is widely read in schools and libraries all over the world.
I, like most children, read this book as part of a school assignment way back in the dark days of middle school (about 12 years old, give or take). We were as shocked and appalled by the book’s themes as we were supposed to be, but as a small town in Mississippi the racial themes were not so far divorced from our everyday lives even fifty years after the book was set. The characters populating this book had and have their modern equivalents, both good and bad. Thankfully as the old guard dies off things are changing and progress has its way with the small worlds, but people will always be people. Later, I read this book in college, studied it as a narrative, more about the what rather than the why and how. I remember disagreeing with one professor over the effectiveness of a first person narrator. The profane use of “I’s” in this little essay should show you where I stood on that topic. That was over a decade ago and now I am back to it. How does it hold up?
Note: This is not a “review” as in “should you read this?” You should have already read this book and from here on out I am going to speak as though you have. So, if you are inclined to yell “spoiler alert,” then put on your big boy/girl pants and read this super awesome example of American literature before you continue, mmmmkay?
As a classic should, this novel stands the test of time both in style and themes. While Shakespeare's master poetry may have gone out of everyday speech, Scout Finch’s homely dialect is still strong as ever as she makes her way through life with both comedy and tragedy. The same goes for the themes of race and sexual equality, pushing all the right buttons to trigger important discussion points both in and out of the story. I suspect that if we were all somehow made identical in shape and color tomorrow, TKAM would still be relevant as we argued over how the difference in voices make some better than others.
The structure of the novel captured me this time as I read through it. The book could almost be an anthology of collected stories as it makes its way through roughly a year of the town’s life. As the tension builds and the trial of Tom Robinson becomes the forefront, a cohesion is formed, yet various parts are stand alone stories that hold up as excellent writing. Moments such as Atticus shooting the rabid dog can be taken by themselves with their own unique lessons that inform the larger structure of the book. The masterwork of plotting and structure is astounding and wonderful.
I cannot say anything more about this book that has not been said. If it has been a few years, pick this book up and go at it. You will learn something even on your eighth pass, I suspect.
TKAM remains one of the most challenged and banned books of all time. The simple prose and powerful themes make it irresistible to middle school teachers which, in turn, causes parents and officials much strife when children start asking questions.
The most cited reason for the book to be removed is profanity. Uses of the words “nigger” and “damn” (as well as variations) are prevalent throughout the book by adults and children alike. This could be seen as promoting the use of the words and derision of black people. In most cases, the defense of the book using these words depends on the word’s usage in the setting. Simply put, that’s how people talked back then and to change the words would be to act like people were better than they were.
Racial themes are the other reason many dislike this book being taught to children. Black people are seen as lower class citizens by most of the characters in the novel, working and caring for the white citizens. The notion that a white man is better than a black man, even his word in a court of law, could be taken from the book by those who do not read into the subtext (as a childish mind might not). Defense again is based on a reflection of the times and the strength of the “good” white characters working with and defending the black characters as well as strong characterization of the black characters.
Speaking of law, some have raised the notion that children may take away from this book that the criminal justice system is flawed as an innocent man is convicted of a crime he did not commit. Indeed, this is the hardest lesson learned by the characters in the novel. That the man then dies attempting to escape... A very hard lesson on how the world can and does work in horrible ways. Defenders may cite that the children in the book learn the same lesson and that the real criminal does get his due, but this is a murky issue of moral and ethical concerns that is full of grey areas.
The final reason this book is often banned is the frank discussion of rape and sexual assault that happens in the book. Lengthy scenes depend on the reader understanding how the assault happened from multiple characters’s perspectives and the information is given several times by both the accuser and the defense. Another frank question and answer session occurs between father and daughter in closed quarters, a discussion that could be held as a perfect example as to how children should be taught about such crimes. If they ask, tell them.
Researches at Marshall University, recorded seven instances in the United States of TKAM being challenged or banned for a variety of reasons between 2004-2012.
Have you read To Kill a Mockingbird recently? What is your take on the book? Does it hold up to you? Were you offended by the language and situations? Did you read it as a child and if so, did you notice anything different? Should they make a sequel called 2 Kill 2 Mockingbird where Scout and Jem do illegal street racing? Let me know in the comments, on twitter, Facebook, or email me at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.
Next time on the Banned Library Reading Banned Books Thingie:
I randomly chose to read Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, mostly because Hollywood randomly chose to make a movie about last year so I’m playing catch up. Follow my progress on Goodreads.
Thanks for wasting your time with my words, now stay in and read a book.