I held off reading this book for ages. Mainly because someone described it as a book about growing up in the South. While accurate, this is not all it is, and it is not the best selling point when describing a book to me: the bildungsroman
has never been my favourite genre, and the American South not my favourite region. I also tend to be more drawn to European classics than the American ones (I do not know why; I am sure there is a sensible explanation that does not make me look like a bigot).
I do, however, feel drawn to the Truman Capote/F. Scott Fitzgerald New York scene of American writing, and it was via this avenue that I finally discovered Nelle Harper Lee for myself. She was a childhood friend of Capote, and I had heard that one of the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird
was based on him. Naturally, I had to read it. Thus my discovery of one of the truly great books of the world.
It reminded me of all that is lovely about the American South; equally importantly, it dealt with the difficult questions of the region without becoming tiresome. I quickly lost sight of my original reason for reading it (the Capote character), although the semi-autobiographical side to the book kept my interest up in the beginning.
Words like "compelling" have lost much of their meaning through over-use, which is sad because it suits the book perfectly. It is also perfectly plotted, quite apart from the important themes it deals with. Each strand of the story, which is skilfully made to seem like simply an episode or moment of small town life becomes important in the story as a whole: Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, the pride of the Cunninghams, the difference between the Cunninghams and the Ewells, Mrs Dubose, the rabid dog, Atticus' sense of honour and his ability to do what is necessary, all come together; and I cannot find fault with the claim that opens the book, that to make sense of Jem's broken arm, the story must begin where it does. The variety of impressions and local sketches, then, do not only have a value in their own right as creating an image of a particular time and place, they also have a place in a tightly constructed plot. Still, I would argue that the road to the end is still the main point.
The treatment of racism is of course a central theme, and one which makes it all the more mind-boggling that people keep trying to have the book banned for its use of the word "nigger". It is so clear in its denunciation of the racism as the blight on an otherwise good society, that one must question whether those who object to it can read at all (as I believe Harper Lee did at one point). Still, reducing the book to its treatment of race is as problematic as presenting it as a book about growing up. Its many-facetedness is part of its particular charm: it deals with gender, class, ethics, law and morals as sides to the same problem as the question of race.
I cannot end this without noting that I loved her language. I have always had a secret love for the Southern American dialect (some versions of it, anyway; and Alabama is high on the list, as is Louisiana), and I could hear it while reading. This is rare. It is not the dialect I fall into while reading, usually; I must therefore conclude that it is due to the rhythm of the words themselves. In addition, the voice of the narrator, that of a little girl who has grown up, held a particular appeal for me. The story, which weaves through terrible questions of a travesty of justice founded in racism, domestic violence, terrible poverty, class distinction, gender questions, education and crime, does so in such a light, simple and straightforward way, and with lovely such humour and ironic treatment of absurdities, that you are left with all your energy intact. As I said, I love the style.
More than all this, however: I love Atticus Finch. I defy anyone not to.