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.
Of course, in the old days nothing would have stood between Tom and the end of a rope thrown over a tree branch; however, now Atticus takes on the case (which would still seem hopeless with an all white jury) and makes a valiant effort to set the man free, despite being the subject of scorn and ridicule in the town.
There is much more to the story than just the trial. Scout, as a daughter and sister, recounts the tale and it is seen through her eyes. While this could lead some to think of it as a children's story, the truth is that Harper Lee makes Scout an accurate teller of what she sees. Even if she herself does not understand everything that is happening, she lets the reader know enough to connect the dots that she herself cannot.
Scout does not understand how some people who have been helped by her father in the past can turn against him. She also cannot accept the idea of prejudice (for she herself loves Calpurnia, the black family maid), or how parents of her friends could be angry now with her because of what her father is doing.
Though there are many memorable characters in this book, it is Atticus Finch who became larger than life in my young mind. I found someone I wanted to emulate, a true hero in the sense of standing up for what is right no matter how wrong everybody says he is. This puts tremendous strain on his family life, but he also knows the risks and still takes a stand that could put him and his children in jeopardy.
One scene that I will never forget is when Atticus takes a chair and sits in front of jail to stop the lynch mob from killing Tom. The strength of his convictions, his belief in the law, and his hope that even the worst racists have some humanity inside were empowering to me as a young reader. Atticus Finch proves in that moment that violence can be stopped without aggression. No wonder Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. praised the novel and its depiction of Finch as a nonviolent hero.
Many years later I had the privilege to be the teacher who assigned this book to his classes, and I was excited to be able to teach something I loved so dearly. It was a thrill to see my students' reactions to the book, and it also sometimes surprised and delighted me when some of the students would get so angry because they couldn't believe that people were so narrow minded in "the old days." The racism and violence was so appalling to them. We had many healthy debates and discussions about the book in my classes, and even the students who were most resistant to literature seemed to be swayed by the convincing narrative.
For me, there have been certain books that have affected my life after reading them, but I think none has had such a powerful and lasting impact as To Kill a Mockingbird. On this the 50th anniversary of the book's publication, the story still resonates with me as one about truth, justice, and the fight for the real American way of life. Atticus Finch may not have been Superman, but I think he is the kind of super hero we should all aspire to be.