This week on Words with Wodcke we discussed To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. It was Sophia’s choice and I was so happy as it is a book I have never read and felt I should read, plus there was the added benefit of finally taking it off my tbr list. As Shantel says in the podcast, it is a book that we have all heard of referred to so many times throughout our lives.
Set in 1933 to 1935 in Maycomb, Alabama, the novel is narrated by Scout (Jean Louis) Finch who is six years old when the story begins. It is her perspective of events that took place when her father, Atticus Finch, is appointed to defend a black man on rape charges against a white woman. The story deals with issues surrounding the treatment of black people in the southern United States during the 1930s from the perspective of a child.
Left, the original US cover, right, the original UK cover, according to bookriot
The author, Harper Lee, was born in Monroeville, Monroe County, Alabama. Her father was a lawyer and at one point when Lee was young, he defended two black men who were accused of murdering a shopkeeper. The two men were hanged for the crime. She has stated that she respects her father but at the same time challenged him and his ideals. It is thought that Maycomb is roughly based on Monroeville and Lee’s experiences there when her father defended the two black men. As well, Scout’s relationship with her father Atticus is considered similar to that of Lee and her father.
Interestingly, Lee states in one of her letters that Esquire turned down one of her pieces because she wrote about ‘some white people who were segregationists & at the same time loathed & hated the K.K.K. This was an axiomatic impossibility, according to Esquire!’ This correlates very well with a passage in the novel where Scout is asking Jem about Mrs. Gates talking negatively about black people but at the same time chastising what Hitler was doing.
The story begins with Scout discussing her brother Jem (Jeremy Atticus) Finch’s broken arms, foreshadowing the events that took place resulting in Jem’s injury. On the first page, the book makes one immediately consider how the 1930s world view, and maybe even our view today, is very much influenced by history. Lee references Andrew Jackson’s part in the Finch family settling in Alabama and even mentions the 1066 Battle of Hastings and how the Finch’s having no claim to that has affected them.
The book begins slowly and the character development isn’t obvious until about halfway through. At this point, you start to see the surprising wisdom that the young Scout and her brother Jem have and how their father has been instrumental in attempting to provide them with an open mind.
Scout is a young girl and as the book progresses you can see Lee does an excellent job of presenting deep thoughts from a child’s perspective. For example, when her father is called a ‘nigger lover,’ she doesn’t know what it means but she knows that it was not meant in a nice way. Or how she can describe all the people in the town to the teacher. As Sophia says in the podcast the perspective is from a naïve child
With Atticus’ character, you begin by thinking he is a bit of an absentee father. However, as the story progresses one realizes that he is very thoughtful about his parenting. He doesn’t let prejudices get in the way of his parenting. Allowing Calpurnia, the black maid, in many ways, to mother his white children. He is so aware of what the effect of him defending Tom Robinson will be on his children. Also explaining to his children in real ways that you shouldn’t blame a child for the errors of the parent. Atticus develops into a very impressive, strong, courageous character.
One of my favourite parts of the book was early on in Chapter 8. It had snowed, and it rarely snowed in Maycomb. Jem and Scout head out to build a snowman, but the two had never seen a snowman being built so they had no idea what to do. Jem begins by using dirt to build the snowman and adds the snow as a covering instead of the entire base. It was so creative and plausibly something that children might do if they had no idea how a snowman was built.
Another aspect of the book I loved was the beautiful writing. Lee has a way with words. At one point early in the book Scout is discussing how Dill had such interest in Boo Radley’s place and she writes ‘it drew him as the moon draws water.’ The image is perfect. She also adds in the appropriate lingo for the time and the location such as ‘foot-washing Baptists,’ ‘Jew’s harp,’ or ‘out yonder in the kitchen.’ I could hear the voices and accents in my head with the writing.
There were a few aspects that didn’t sit well with me. One was the attempt by Lee to make the reader think that Boo Radley wasn’t a nice person. To me the character of Boo Radley was predictable from the moment he was introduced in the book. I knew I was going to like him in the end. Another aspect was how Atticus allowed his sister Alexandra Hancock so much influence with his children. Her values and beliefs were not all in line with Atticus’ and I would think knowing his personality that he would stand up to her more often.
While writing this blog I read quite a bit about Harper Lee and it has become apparent to me that she was thoughtful about things and had a sense of humour. One of the funny things I found was this recipe she wrote for crackling bread from The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook. Remember crackling bread was one of Scout’s favourite treats.
First, catch your pig. Then ship it to the abattoir nearest you. Bake what they send back. Remove the solid fat and throw the rest away. Fry fat, drain off liquid grease, and combine the residue (called “cracklings”) with:
1 ½ cups water-ground white meal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup milk
Bake in very hot oven until brown (about 15 minutes).
Result: one pan crackling bread serving 6. Total cost: about $250, depending upon size of pig. Some historians say this recipe alone fell the Confederacy.