“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass or punt.
“When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out…”
And so begins an evocation of childhood that has passed into a timeless classic, To Kill A Mockingbird. There is not a wasted word in those opening lines as will become all too clear in the end after it has taken us on a journey through a racist, segregated Deep South where there is no justice for a black man even when he is falsely accused by a white man. But the story is heartwarming at the same time, told in the voice of a high-spirited little girl.
Scout does not rave and rant. She merely recalls what she saw and the strong emotions she felt as others taunted her father, a lawyer, who had to defend a black man falsely accused of rape. Atticus Finch, her father, had no choice. He was assigned the case. But he really tried to defend his client instead of just going through the motions, earning the nickname “nigger-lover”. That’s a word which would hardly appear in print today, it just goes to show how times have changed. This novel, which appeared in 1960, could not have been written a few years later. That was the year Kennedy became President. Life changed in post-civil rights America — even in Alabama, where this story is set and which fought hardest against desegregation.
The story is set even further back in time, in Roosevelt’s America. But times change faster than people. To Kill A Mockingbird evokes a vanished world whose people still remain oddly contemporary. We can admire the quiet heroism of Atticus, love the clear-eyed innocence of his children Jem and Scout and their friend Dill, feel the motherliness of their cook Calpurnia, appreciate the tolerance and intelligence of their friendly neighbour Miss Maudie, and laugh at the pretensions of Aunt Alexandra and the other Southern ladies with their mix of polite manners and deep prejudice. But some of them too have their good points.
This is a novel of discovery. Perhaps that is why the novel continues after the courtroom scene which is absolutely masterly and unique in describing a complex case from the point of view of a child. The children discover not only racism and prejudice but good things too, like the heroism of their father, and the decency of many others, both black and white. They themselves change, both physically and mentally. One little scene etched in my mind is 12-year-old Jem shyly showing off the beginnings of body hair to his sister. Scout the tomboy finally aspires to be a lady.
And then there is Boo Radley, who turns to be out more pathetic and more deadly than anything the children imagined, but very much their friend though he hides away in his lonely house.
Appearance and reality, Scout the child narrator does not frame it in those terms, but her father says it in all the last page of the book as she falls asleep while reading a story to him. “He was real nice,” she reads out before dozing off, and tucking her in her bed, he says: “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them. “
Harper Lee, still very much alive, who won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel, never came out with a second book. One can see why. Nothing could be more perfect. I wish I had seen the film starring Gregory Peck so I could compare the book and the movie.