July 11, 2010, marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. During the course of those 50 years, the book has managed to become entrenched in the public consciousness, in large part due to the fact that it tells a timeless coming of age story, but also because it eventually became required reading in American schools.
To those of us who can recall the first time we read a book that changed our lives, we remember it fondly and much better than other books. Such is the case for me with To Kill a Mockingbird, because it changed not just my thoughts about books but also the way I perceived the world.
I read this book before it became "required" reading sometime in high school. I must have been nine or ten, and I read it during the summer when I used to like to read books for pleasure. I immediately identified with Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, who tells the tale of when she was also nine years old and living in Maycomb, Alabama. I didn't care that she was a girl, and in fact I wished more girls were like her because she had a tough little tomboy way about her. I definitely would have wanted to play baseball with her.
While some people think of this book as a "children's book," it is far from that. I probably read it when I was too young the first time, because I knew nothing about the subject matter covered in the story: rape, hatred, violence, prejudice, and lynch mobs. I suppose that is what opened my eyes and why I remember the book so vividly: because it forced me to see a decidedly different and ugly side of life.
The story Scout tells is ostensibly about her father Atticus, a widowed lawyer who defends a black man who has been charged with rape. Tom Robinson is not guilty of this crime, but has been accused by a young white girl Mayella Ewell, whose family lives in terrible circumstances of poverty. She lies to protect herself from her evil drunk of a father Bob, who is perhaps one of the most despicable characters found in literature.