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

Monday, January 29, 2018

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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 three 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 hole, 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, descends 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 some way.  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.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.

Nobody knew what form of intimidation Mr. Radley employed to keep Boo out of sight, but Jem figured that Mr. Radley kept him chained to the bed most of the time.  Atticus said no, it wasn’t that sort of thing, that there were other ways of making people into ghosts.
--Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird p 14)
Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading.
--Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird p 22)
Now you tell your father not to teach you any more.  It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage…Your father does not know how to teach.
--Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird p 23)
There are no clearly defined seasons in South Alabama; summer drifts into autumn, and autumn is sometimes never followed by winter, but turns to a days-old spring that melts into summer again. 
--Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird p 79)
For reasons unfathomable to the most experienced prophets in Maycomb County, autumn turned to winter that year.  We had two weeks of the coldest weather since 1885.  Atticus said, Mr. Avery said it was written on the Rosetta Stone that when children disobeyed their parents, smoked cigarettes and made war on each other, the seasons would change: Jem and I were burdened with the guilt of contributing to the aberrations of nature, thereby causing unhappiness to our neighbors and discomfort to ourselves.
-Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird p 85)
Next morning I awoke, looked out the window and nearly died of fright.  My screams brought Atticus from his bathroom half-shaven.  “The world’s endin’, Atticus!”  Please do something---!” I dragged him to the window and pointed.  “No it’s not,” he said.  “ It’s snowing.”
--Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird p 86)
Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.
--Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird p 101)
Try fighting with your head for a change.. it’s a good one, even if it does resist learning.
--Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird p 101)
Mockingbirds don’t do one things but make music for us to enjoy.  They don’t eat up people’s garden’s don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.  That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.
--Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird p 119)

“For a while” in Maycomb meant anything from three days to thirty years.
--Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird p 169)
All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbor was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.
--Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird p 229)

If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other?  If they’re all alike, why do they go out their way to despise each other?  Scout, I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time.. it’s because he wants to stay inside.
--Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird p 304)
“An’ they chased him ‘n never could catch him ‘cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an’ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice…” “Most people are, Scout, when you finally se them.”
--Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird p 376)
Link to Amazon:https://www.amazon.com/Kill-Mockingbird-Harperperennial-Modern-Classics-ebook/dp/B00K0OI42W/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1517234319&sr=8-1&keywords=to+kill+a+mockingbird

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