Title: To Kill a Mockingbird

Published: 1960

Author: Harper Lee

Challenge status:  Winner of the Pulitzer prize and #4 on  Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and frequent target of banning attempts according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #12 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why:

  • Challenged in many places (here’s the ALA list); reading through the list of complaints it looks like the primary issue is the racial epithet (i.e. the “n” word). I can’t help but laugh that the reason it was temporarily banned in 1977 in Eden Valley, MN was for use of the words “damn” and “whore lady”. (That’s all you got?) But then in upstate New York (VVS school district) the complaint was simply described as a “filthy, trashy novel”.
  • Removed/Banned seems to have been removed/banned a few times but then returned into the library/school/curriculum.

First line: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow”.

Synopsis: I love this book! This whole “banned book club” experiment is totally worth it just on the joy of rediscovering this book. Initially, I was a little nervous about reading it directly after Native Son, also about racism and class issues. Native Son was really intense, and my memories of To Kill a Mockingbird were vague since I was probably 14 or 15 when I read it last — all I could remember was a courtroom scene and the dread of an inevitable but unfair verdict. And also something about a mysterious guy nobody knew but who got teased a lot. Well, there was that, but there was also a lot more.

First off, there’s our narrator. Scout is a young girl growing up in sleepy Maycomb; loves to read, hates being called a girl. Knows all of her neighbors (except the mysterious Boo Radley) but still has new adventures daily. Big enough to go to school, but still too young to understand why her teachers seem so ignorant of community norms– or why they want her to stop reading and learning with her dad. It is so great following along with Scout as she figures things out, and to enjoy her observations on topics that she won’t appreciate till she reaches adulthood.

Her life gets quite a bit more confusing when her dad Atticus Finch takes on a case defending a local black man who’s been accused of some pretty terrible things by a poor white family that lives on the outskirts of town. And on this pressure point the community gets quite tangled-up, across lines of class, race, virtue, and family. As always, children both absorb and filter, which makes their point of view an interesting one to consider.

What I’m taking away from this re-read is a whole new set of heros. Atticus Finch is the most obvious, in his defense of Tom – including his unarmed watchman act the night before the trial, where it is Scout who saves the day in her innocent greeting and attempt at friendly conversation with Walter Cunningham, one of the lynch mob leaders. (Chapter 15, so great). There’s also Jem, Boo Radley, and Sheriff Tate (who save Scout, Jem, and Boo, respectively) in the books surprising finale. But there are others. In particular, I come away from the book with new love for Calpurnia (taking Scout & Jem to church with her – great scene) and also Miss Maudie, the Finch’s weed-hating, scripture-quoting, straight-shooting neighbor. In this small, subtle scene – Maycomb’s ladies’ missionary circle. Scout is listening the the community’s women talking over her head about poverty, immorality, and have started to complain about the lingering effects that the “guilty” verdict in Tom’s case has had on the local black community, and complaining that their servants have been unnecessarily stirred-up (by some “good but misguided people in this town”), and are not grateful enough (too “sulky…dissatisfied”) for their employment:

His food doesn’t stick going down, does it?”

Miss Maudie said it. Two tight lines had appeared at the corners of her mouth. She had been sitting silently beside me, her coffee cup balanced on one knee. I had lost the thread of converation long ago, when they quite talking about Tom Robinson’s wife, and had contented myself with thinking of Finsh’s Landing and the river. Aunt Alexandra had got it backwards: the business part of the meeting was blood-curdling, the social hour was dreary. 

“Maudie, I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” said Mrs. Merriweather.

“I’m sure you do,” Miss Maudie said shortly.

She said no more. When Miss Maudie was angry her brevity was icy. Something had made her deeply angry, and her gray eyes were as cold as her voice. Mrs. Merriweather reddened, glanced at me, and looked away. I could not see Mrs Farrow.

Aunt Alexandra got up from the table and swiftly passed more refreshments, neatly engaging Mrs. Merriweather and Mrs. Gates in brisk conversation. When she had them well on the road with Mrs. Perkins, Aunt Alexandra stepped back. She gave Miss Maudie a look of pure gratitude, and I wondered at the world of women. Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra had never been especially close, and here was Aunty silently thanking her for something. For what, I knew not. I was content to learn that Aunt Alexandra could be pierced sufficiently to feel gratitude for help given. There was no doubt about it, I must soon enter this world, where on its surface fragrant ladies rocked slowly, fanned gently, and drank cool water.

Brilliant, I love this passage. Miss Maudie for the win.