I recommend listening to the audio of this book because coupled with the descriptive prose of the author and the perfectly portrayed reading of Sissy Spacek, I absolutely witnessed every event in the book; I lived it, I watched it, I felt it. It was an absolutely brilliant reading of a brilliant book with an abundance of messages about human nature and human behavior at its best and at its worst.
Early in the thirties, the effects of the Great Depression were raging. Jobs were scarce and money was hard to come by. Poor people found it hard to send their children to school because they were needed to help out on the farm or in other ways to provide for the family. They often went hungry. In the south, race relations were poor and the people of color were poorer. There were few civil rights afforded to blacks. They were oppressed by those who thought of themselves as better. They stood little chance of having a fair trial if accused of a crime or of improving their economic condition. They were at the mercy of whites, and some whites were evil. These were the times, rife with inequities, that this novel takes place.
There are several characters that play meaningful roles in the story:
1-Atticus Finch is as close as a human being can get to being a saint; he seems near perfect. He is calm, contemplative, kind and compassionate, fair and non-judgmental, and he has no desire whatsoever for retribution even when he has been wronged. He teaches by setting a good example for others and believes in always doing what is right. He has two children, Jeremy and Jean Louise. He raises them with the same values. His wife has died.
Atticus is a lawyer, and he has been appointed to defend a black man who has been accused of rape. Atticus knows it will be an uphill battle to defend him in Alabama, but he would never refuse the case. He believes that Tom Robinson, accused by Bob Ewell, a no-account in town who drinks and abuses his children, is innocent. He is disappointed and saddened by the state of the justice system regarding the treatment and trial of blacks accused of a crime. He vows to do his best, even when some townsfolk object to his defense of a black man whom they would rather see wrongfully punished for daring to touch a white girl, than shame the white man who is lying to protect himself simply because he can, in this white world. A black man simply has less value to them than even a man they know is a lowlife. Their arrogance and blindness propel them to behave this way.
2-Scout (Jean Louise), is the younger of the two children. She is the voice of this novel. Her voice, as a young child filled with innocence and wonder, is authentic. She is just entering kindergarten and is suddenly exposed to a world that is sometimes unjust and cruel. Scout is a bit more rambunctious than her older brother Jem. She is also “in love” with her playmate, Dill (Charles), and he, also very young, has professed his love for her. Scout adores Calpurnia.
3-Jem, (Jeremy) is more like his father. He is a careful thinker and as the older brother, he cares for and protects Scout who wants to do everything he does, even though he is older. He is not a saint, he is a boy who knows how to play as well as how to toil. Both children have enormous respect for their “older” father whom they call Atticus, not dad, throughout the book.
4-Calpurnia is the insightful, black maid/nanny who astutely cares for and helps to raise the Finch children. She is like part of the family. She has basically brought them up as a surrogate parent. She does everything their mother would have done, disciplining them, nourishing them and loving them. She knows how to read and write and speaks differently, in a more educated manner when she is working, than when she is at her home because it wouldn’t do to be “uppity” in her own neighborhood. She is acquainted with the young man that Atticus is defending. Both children genuinely care for and respect her.
5-Boo (Arthur Radley), is a developmentally challenged neighbor who keeps totally to himself and doesn’t speak. He is the neighborhood “freak”, and the children are wary of him. They have never seen him and attribute all sorts of character traits to him and relate stories about the nefarious things he might have done. Is he really a “gentle giant” quietly living his life?
6-Scout’s teacher, Miss Caroline, seemed largely unaware of the needs of the poor children or of the problems they faced preventing them from attending school. She resented Scout for knowing how to read before the rest of the class was taught. She seemed unprepared for her job and naïve, at best.
Each character played an important role in setting the scene, illustrating the atmosphere that often existed then in small and large towns, everywhere. Harper Lee, using, insight, wit and wisdom, has carefully drawn a picture of the race relations that existed down south with its prejudice and poverty, whites towards blacks and blacks toward whites, albeit in the latter case, with far less power and effect. She has articulated the ignorance and abject hatred that existed there in some quarters. It was widely known that blacks had far fewer advantages and little chance of proving their innocence when accused of a crime. It was a time when a black life was thought to be worth far less than a white life, and some may think that, even today. Even if the jury knew the accused was being framed, in the interest of preserving white superiority, they often convicted him as part of a conspiracy to maintain the status quo. A black man could simply not get away with any accusation a white person made, even though innocent. Their superiority had to be maintained at all costs. Still today, almost six decades since the book was published, the reader will wonder if much has changed, and upon careful reflection will realize, yes, much has truly changed, but some attitudes on both sides, black and white, have not. Still, one can hope that the guileless children, with their pure thoughts and trusting natures, will lead the way.
In this sweet narrative, related by Scout, a five year old, frank and open, honest and sincere in her thoughts, questions and spontaneous evaluations of events, the prevailing southern attitudes of the times, come to light. The class distinctions are apparent and the differences in treatment are very obvious. The children sometimes have more common sense than the adults. They are kinder and fairer and love without reservations.
***“I believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way….” Music and lyrics written by Michael Masser and Linda Creed.