Book Review – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: A Look Into Our Soul

To Kill A MockingbirdIf ever there were a book I would consider voting for as the “Great American Novel”, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the one…the only one. It is hard for me to say that there is a one great anything. Times change, technology improves, and social views evolve. In short, we are never the same from one generation to the next and trying to pick anything that spans the gap and the differences as the greatest of all is difficult, if not a complete waste of time.

When it comes to literature, there are so many fine books and so many great writers that trying to narrow the selection to the “one great one” interferes with valuable reading time…generally. But then there is To Kill A Mockingbird.

Harper Lee’s story takes place in the small southern Alabama town and county of Maycomb during the depression era 1930’s. She paints a picture of the community and the people populating it through the eyes of Scout (Jean Louise Finch) the daughter of a prominent local attorney, Atticus Finch. As the book opens, Scout is preparing to begin her first year in grade school.

She and her brother Jem and friend Dill pass the summer doing the things children did before the age of video games and twenty-four hour television. They played. They entertained themselves. They went on adventures. They told stories about the frightening, recluse who lives on the corner. They were children.

They did all of this under the watchful eyes of Calpurnia, the black woman who is housekeeper and surrogate mother to the family. Scout describes her as “all angles and bone…with a hand as wide as a bed slat and twice as hard…”

In the Finch household, Cal is treated as an equal, a partner in the upbringing of the children and an indispensable member of the family. That is in the Finch household. Outside their small world, things are different in the community of Maycomb.

I find Calpurnia to be one of the most interesting of characters in the story. She is a strong and independent black woman who makes her way in the world dominated by whites. Scout is amazed on one occasion when visiting at Cal’s church that she spoke differently to other blacks, using their particular colloquialisms and dialect. It was very different from the way she spoke with Scout and Jem in the Finch home. Scout had no idea that Calpurnia lived this “double life” relating differently to the two cultures in Maycomb.

In short, racial prejudice reigns, as was common in the time. Blacks, Negroes as polite members of the community called African Americans in that day, are second-class citizens with a place in the universe of Maycomb that is always inferior to the whites. Even the most white-trashy, ignorant, slovenly of whites holds a place in the community superior to any of the blacks.

As a southerner who grew up in the south in the 1950s, I remember the “Jim Crowe” days. I went to schools that were not desegregated. I saw white only water fountains and restrooms. Black children were to be treated kindly, but we did not associate as a rule. They had their world. We had ours.

As Scout paints a picture of Maycomb through the experiences she shares with Jem and Dill, it begins as a sort of “Mayberry-esque”, idyllic memoir of her childhood. But events open her eyes to the underlying darkness of their culture. Maycomb is not the perfect little world she thought.

She is guided by her father, Atticus, through the twisting cultural maze she inhabits. He teaches her not to judge others, but to get in their shoes and walk around a while to see how the world looks from their perspective. Most importantly, never kill a mockingbird because all they do is sing and bring happiness without harming anyone else. Atticus is the rock in Scout’s world, giving her rope to explore and float about on the sea, but always there to anchor her safely.

Brother Jem (short for Jeremy) and friend Dill are her conscience and mentors in a way. Dill, rambunctious but sensitive, opens her eyes to things she had missed in their small community. Jem, sees and struggles with the contradictions around them…white people they have known all their lives as good people, doing things and saying things that they know to be wrong.

Through her innocence and confused effort to understand what is happening around her, we see that things are socially complicated. Whites harboring racial prejudice are not all evil as Scout describes their interactions. Instead, you get the feeling that they are ignorant, not seeing the contradictions in their lives, one instant treating a black member of the community in a courteous friendly manner, the next making sure they understand their place in the community…second class.

Some, however, are evil. The Ewells are the evilest of them all. Their conflict with Atticus and his defense of a black man, Tom Robinson, accused but innocent of a terrible crime leads to a chilling climax in the concluding chapters.

In the event that there is someone who has not read the book or seen the movie, I will not include any plot spoilers here. Just know that it is a gripping story with a conclusion that keeps you on the edge of your seat before Lee allows you to take a breath in the final chapter.

The prose is superb. The story is engaging and riveting. There are moments that will make you smile, others that will make you angry and some that might bring tears to your eyes.

Most of all, Harper Lee’s use of a little girl, Scout, to bring the narrative to life is masterful. It is not a children’s book, but through the eyes of a child, we see ourselves and the world around us. For me, that is why To Kill A Mockingbird is the great American novel. It spans the gap of generations, and through Scout’s eyes, looks into our soul.

The Great American Novel? uhmmm…. well….Review of Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Review: ‘Moby Dick; or The Whale’ by Herman Melville

The Great American Novel? My high school literature teacher said that it was. I’m old enough now to disagree and say…No. A great American classic. Yes, I would go along with that, but the one great American novel…No.

I don’t believe in a one “Great” anything. There will always be someone or something different or better, including novels. Having said that, I did manage to work my way through Melville’s ponderous, and often tedious classic tale for the second time, and surely the last time, in my life.

So why is it a “Classic”? The story line, I suppose. Melville created a dark, ominous and intriguing character in Ahab, possessed by the need for revenge against the Great White Whale, Moby Dick. His obsession becomes possession, pitting him against pious Starbuck as innocent Ishmael looks on and records their battle for the souls of the crew.

In truth, there are some literary gems in the book as well. I find the opening chapters, Ishmael’s arrival in Nantucket, the inn, signing on as part of the crew of the Pequod, description of the Pequod’s two owners, Captains Peleg and Bildad and Ishmael’s interaction with his pagan friend Queequeg to be well written and enjoyable by any standard.

After that, the story bogs down in Melville’s tedious and usually incorrect study and classification of whales. Melville maintained, as did many of his day that whales were fish, not mammals, although he was not alone in that analysis at the time.

There are moments of interesting dialogue interaction among the characters, but in general, the parts of the book that everyone knows are the parts that we see in the various film adaptations of the story. There is a reason for this. Melville’s style in Moby Dick is tedious.

Even taking into account that he was a nineteenth century writer, his sentence structure and deeply dramatic descriptive passages can be tiring and sometimes confusing. I enjoy and prefer a number of other nineteenth century writers -Dickens, Cooper, Bierce, Crane, Poe, Emerson, Thoreau- and find their works enjoyable, even if written in the formalized style of the times. Frankly, Melville wears me out, at least in Moby Dick.

A word to all of my animal loving friends. Moby Dick is about whaling and whales are killed. Some of Melville’s best passages relate to the killing of the whales and the men who faced them in small boats on the open ocean. Lest we judge too harshly and impose our twenty-first century morality on those who lived before us, we should remember that the world was a very dark place before electricity. Whale oil made it a bit brighter. That’s not a defense, just reality.

I have no doubt that if Melville were to plop his manuscript down on the desk of a modern agent or publisher he would be rejected with only a form letter and no call back.

Even so, I give it four stars for a couple of reasons. The story is classic. As mentioned above, certain parts of the story and the conflict between good and evil, obsession and reality are masterful. The characterization of people who crewed ships powered by sail, and went out on the waters to face the great whales is honest and real. For its day, Moby Dick was, indeed, a classic.

Here’s a link to get it free on Amazon Kindle if you are courageous enough to give it a try, but no dishonor for passing on it. I’m just a devil for punishment.

Best – Glenn