I eventually do get to books on my list. This one has been on it for at least thirty years. Better late than never. I last saw the movie years ago and remembered virtually nothing of it, so I was reading it with basically no knowledge of what was going to happen, except that there was a trial. It says a lot that this book still holds up since it was first published in 1960. Perhaps because things have not changed as much as we would like to think they have.
The book opens up with Scout and her older brother Jem meeting their neighbor Miss Rachel's nephew, Dill, who has come to spend the summer visiting from Mississippi. Dill is Scout's age and the thee take to each other immediately. Dill has a habit of exaggerating. They spend the summer playing out movie roles and such and Dill asks lots of questions about the Radley place. The Radley place is a mysterious place. The family has always been odd. They would spend lots of time indoors and were very religious. The children ended up getting into trouble and the judge was going to send them to a correctional school, where they would get an education. The parents let them send all of the kids but Arthur. The other kids grew up to have successful careers and Arthur was locked up in the house and not seen, until in his thirties he stabbed his father in the leg with a pair of scissors. His father convinced the sheriff not to put him in the asylum and he was locked up in the basement of the jail. Eventually the sheriff told his parents they had to take him back or put him in the asylum. So back to the house he went. When his parents died, his brother Nathan came to take care of him. Dill became obsessed to try and see what was going on in the house and see if they could get Arthur "Boo" Radley to come out.
Soon the summer ends and Scout is faced with entering school for the first time. Her teacher, Miss Caroline is "not from around here". Scout ends up on the wrong foot with her right off when Miss Caroline learns that she can read and write already when she is not supposed to . Then when its time to go to lunch one of the kids, a Cunningham, does not have a lunch, so Miss Caroline offers him a quarter and tells him he can give it back to her tomorrow, but he refuses. The class looks to Scout to explain things to her. When she does, she rather botches it. The Cunninghams do not take anything that they cannot pay back. She learned from her father about entitlements that people pay for services with what they can and she explains to the teacher that the boy can't pay her back and she doesn't need stovewood. The teacher raps her knuckles with a ruler for that. Scout and Jem have the boy over for lunch. When they come back from lunch one of the poor, trashy, evil Ewells is leaving. They only show up for the first day of school then leave. When Miss Caroline tries to make him stay he is cruel to her and she puts her head on the desk and cries. The children come up to her and explain things to her. In this world who you are means something about you.
Scout and Jem would continue to have an obsession about the Radley house and one day they would notice that things were being left in the tree trunk nearby and since no one was claiming them, they took them, not knowing who put them there. Then one day, Nathan poured concrete and filled the whole, which broke their hearts, because by then they suspected that Boo was the one leaving the items. That summer they would become more stupid than brave and go out at night and sneak onto the property and try to peak into the window, but they are heard and when they run back across the backyard a gun goes off near them. Jem's pants get caught in the fence and he has to leave them, which is hard to explain to his father and the neighbors who have gathered in the street when they heard the gun shot. Later that night he goes back to get his pants and the rip had been mysteriously sewn up.
Atticus is assigned a case by Judge Taylor, that he accepts, to defend Tom Robinson who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell. Now, no one likes the Ewells. They look down on them as the lowest of the low. The father Bob Ewell drinks the government money he gets that he is supposed to use to support the many children he has and illegally hunts (which is considered a felony in Maycomb County) but gets away with it because no one wants his kids to go hungry. No one can seem to make his kids go to school for more than one day a year, the first day. They eat food out of the dump next door to their shack. But they're still white, so their word is still worth more that a black man who goes to church and is an honest worker and married with children. A man whose left arm is withered and useless from a farm accident. Scout and Jem begin to hear things like that their father is a "nigger lover" and other such horrid things. Scout's first reaction is to fight, but then her father tells her she must not, for his sake. He also tells her that it is true. He loves all people, but not to use the word nigger, because it is "common".
The night before the trial there is a heart-stopping scene when Atticus is at the jail sitting in a chair by himself reading a paper and watching over Tom when a mob shows up. Jem, Scout, and Dill are hiding in the bushes watching when things start to go ugly and then something totally unexpected happens.
Atticus's sister, the dreaded Alexandra, decends upon them that summer. She is forever trying to get Scout out of her overalls and into dresses. She tries to teach her and Jem the importance of being a Finch and the various traits of the other families of Maycomb County. Of course, the thing about Maycomb County is that it has always been so isolated that for centuries people have intermarried and everyone is related to everyone else in someway. Atticus reminds Alexandra that the Finch trait until this generation was incest. Soon Alexandra is the Queen bee of society.
Not everyone is cruel or yells horrid things to Atticus and the children. One of their neighbors, Miss Addie, loves to spend her time outdoors obsessing over her flowers. She loves having the kids over. She's fifty, Atticus's age, and bakes cakes for them to eat and talks to them about important things they need to know, like why their father is so important to this town and that he really is good at quite a lot of things they don't know about. Miss Addie also has a way of putting the women of the Missionary group in their place when they get out of line. She is not afraid of anything. While she is a good Baptist, she is constantly yelled at by the "foot washing" Baptist who come by once a week who tell her she is going to hell for working in her garden and not staying indoors reading the bible.
Tom, of course, has no hope of an acquittal. Atticus knows this. He does know that there is a good possibility of having it overturned on appeal. Its rather sad that in a court of law, where every person is supposed to be equal, you find that they are not. I wish I could say that has changed, but it hasn't. We're just as bigoted today as we were in the 1930s when this book took place. We're doing a bit better with relations with African Americans, but we are having a very hard time with other races, religions, other sexualities, etc.. As humans we will always find something to be prejudiced about. It is in our nature. Toni Morrison wrote a book fifteen years ago called Paradise. It was about a city that was founded by former slaves. Soon a hierarchy was formed and prejudice reared its head, as lighter skinned blacks saw themselves as better than the darker skinned blacks. It is a sad fact about us and shows how this book is so important and needs to be read, and often, to remind us of the ugliness of our nature.
***Addendum..First, I forgot to mention something that had nothing to do with the story of the book, but which struck me strongly. In this book, Tom, if found guilty of rape, will be sentenced to death. Any man at that time in Alabama who raped a woman would receive that sentence. It is sad that today it is extremely hard to get a rape case to trial, and even if you do, to get a conviction. If you manage to get a conviction, chances are the rapist won't spend much time in jail, much less get a death sentence, which maybe he should. After all, he took a life. When someone is raped, their old life is gone. It is shattered and in pieces. If they are lucky, they are able to find a way move forward. I think John Irving had it right when he wrote in his novel the Hotel New Hampshire that rape is the worst thing you can do to a person because you can't survive murder.
Second, I like to think of myself as a realist, but perhaps I sometimes slide into pessimism. My friend pointed out to me that a vocal minority was the ones who were promoting the hatred and prejudice in this country and that most people are not generally like that. Perhaps I was influenced by the incident a few years ago when a mosque opened up close to the Twin Towers and people were up in arms about it. Also, someone told me that they believed in freedom of religion in schools, but then turned around and said that we needed Christian prayers to said in schools and if they had a problem with it, they could stand in the hall. It also did not help that the night before I wrote the review I watched an episode of Oprah's series Belief where they talked of two men in Africa: one a militant Christian pastor, the other a Muslim. When the Muslim's Imam was murdered, he believed that the pastor's group was responsible, even though they were not, and they burned down their church and attacked them. The pastor lost his hand. The two men became very bitter and angry. A journalist tried to bring the two men together in an attempt to bring peace, but was unsuccessful. But after a few years, the men came to realize that this is not what their God would want them to do and they forgave each other and joined forces and began traveling into Muslim areas to teach forgiveness and try to heal the land. The pastor would show that he had been affected by this, as he had lost a hand, but he would always be countered by others who had lost a loved one. He often met Muslims who had been forced from their homes from the Christians. Most of the Muslims would turn their backs and walk away from these men. I paid attention to that and failed to notice those who stayed behind and listened. So maybe things are not as bad as they seem. I don't know. I can only hope that we will continue to march forward and progress toward loving our fellow brothers and sisters no matter what.
I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell