My copy of To Kill a Mocking-Bird is dated 1983 and in big indiscreet letters the cover announces “Over 11,000,000 sold”. I believe that figure is now about forty million. That probably means that just about everybody pitching up here will know the story, but for the few who don’t… The book, written in 1960, is set in Alabama in 1935 and is set among white people who all have Black maids, except they did not call them Black in 1935, and some of the everyday cruder versions are hard to stomach – but that was the time, those were the words. The narrator is Scout, tomboy sister of Jem, both the son of the single parent lawyer Atticus Finch but mostly looked after by the Black woman Calpurna. We learn a lot of the town – hot, slow, Southern, long-established, with people being identified as a “Ewell” or a “Cunningham” as if the family name alone is a guide to character though Harper Lee makes it clear that everyone white was really related whether they were professionals or “trash”. There’s the “Radley Place” where the mysterious Boo Radley lives, a dangerous recluse and somewhere out of town live the Black people. White men go to work while white women raise money for missionaries to the uncivilised. Harper Lee makes them look so foolish. Most people are pretty foolish to Scout.
The one who isn’t is Atticus, who treats people as he finds them, but finds good in most people or at least he has an understanding of their position. But the simmering issue is that he is due to defend a Black man charged with rape of a white woman, and this is the Deep South. He is not popular. The most moving part of the story for me is when he sets up camp outside the town jail before the trial knowing some people are coming to lynch the man, Tom Robinson. Scout – always with a nose for trouble – turns up and in her innocence shames the men into leaving. In the trial Atticus has to shred the story of the poor woman who called rape. A woman who lived in squalor, was mistreated, possibly sexually, by her father. A woman who was asked if she had any friends but who did not understand the question. One person only had been kind to her – the man now charged with, but obviously innocent, of rape. Tom is found guilty, as the whole town knew he would be. Despite the verdict Atticus’ family is deluged with gifts of food, firewood and crops by the Black people of the town who had seen, at last, that someone would stand by them.
I liked the book, admired the writing and took pleasure in the small things – such as how and when children did nor did not wear shoes, about the visit by the Finch children to Calpurna’s church where she faces down what could be described as a Black separatist, where, towards the end Scout stands on Boo Radley’s porch and sees what he must have seen of the town in his years of isolation. And I liked Scout, even when she was a vicious little brat. Gradually it becomes clear that Atticus does not stand alone. There’s the wealthy white man who chose to live among Black people and the employer who gets himself thrown out of court trying to defend Tom. Towards the end a law officer shows great kindness to Boo Radley.
It would be easy to argue that, in the book, Black people are people who have things done to them and have no agency, or that this is a book about white liberals. The latter is true and the former is also true. This is the Deep South, in a red-neck area, in 1935. Yet there are strong women like Calpurna – Cal – who Scout loves and the whole was stratified not just by colour but by class and the grinding poverty that created victims like Tom and the woman Mayella who he did not rape. Harper Lee knew all this and used her language carefully, like when the seemingly decent Mr Gilmer prosecuting the rape case starts calling Tom “boy” as he questions him. The effect is ice.
Tomorrow night, I’ll watch the film.