News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

July 3, 2010

MARK BENNETT: A child’s view of prejudice keeps ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ relevant a half-century later

TERRE HAUTE — Perspective means everything.

Two people can view the same event and retell the story so differently. One may see normalcy; the other, hurt.

This week, the classic novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” marks its 50th anniversary. Since Harper Lee wrote the story of tolerance and social justice in 1960, nearly 40 million copies have sold. It’s never gone out of print. It’s been translated into 50 different languages. In 1999, a survey by the Library Journal ranked it the best novel of the 20th century; a poll of Vigo County Public Library patrons that same year agreed.

The book still ranks No. 1 on summer reading lists for high school students. Last week, almost every copy of the Pulitzer Prize winner, and videos of the 1962 film based on the book, were checked out at the Vigo County library’s main branch.

“That’s always an indicator that it remains a popular book, even after 50 years,” said Nancy Dowell, the library’s executive director.

The lasting popularity of Lee’s novel has many reasons, including “the beauty of its clear prose,” said Andrew H. Miller, professor of English at Indiana University, as well as “its direct address of enduring moral issues; and its humorous, ironic use of a child’s perspective to frame and cut through adult moral issues.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is told through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl, Scout Finch. She lives in the fictional Alabama town of Maycomb in 1936 with her older brother, Jem, and their middle-aged father, Atticus, a widower lawyer. When Atticus is appointed to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who is wrongly accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell, Maycomb turns on the Finches. Facing seething taunts and threats born of deep-rooted prejudice, Scout stands up and fights for her dad, who risks his own life to do the same for his client. The children — Scout, Jem and their friend Dill — watch in confusion and disillusionment as a jury of white men declares Tom guilty, even after Atticus proves his innocence in court. Later, Tom dies, trying to escape the Maycomb jail.

“It ain’t right, Atticus,” Jem says after the verdict.

“No, son, it’s not right,” Atticus answers.

A boy, baffled, felt the outrage. The adult, who knew the reality of 1930s racism, felt resignation.

The book’s childlike point-of-view forces grown-ups to answer for the absurd injustices they’ve perpetuated and institutionalized. That perspective might change perceptions of other situations — what if a child in New Orleans told the story of Hurricane Katrina, or a youngster in a Haiti narrated the saga of the January earthquake? A child living in a war zone might struggle to understand rationalizations for the conflict.

“Mockingbird” questions biases of race, social status, religion and gender, without neat resolutions. When Scout asks Atticus why a client repays him with goods instead of money, Atticus explains to his daughter that the man has no money. “Is he poor?” she asks. “Yes,” Atticus answers. After a pause, she asks, “Are we poor?” His answer: “We are indeed,” but not as poor as a nearby farm family.

Until that moment, this girl had no idea she was — in the eyes of others — poor.

With “To Kill a Mockingbird,” young readers are forced to take stock of our human-made social stations. It fits powerfully in school reading lists.

“It is, in its way, a perfect book,” Miller explained, “and this makes it extremely teachable: timely ethical and aesthetic issues are raised cleanly but not answered, so they are immediately ready for satisfying classroom discussion.”

The book contains examples of courage, in some unsuspecting places. Of course, Atticus bravely repels the lynch-mob atmosphere as he defends Tom. There is also the imperfect neighbor woman, Mrs. Dubose, who is addicted to morphine. The white woman blurts out bitter, racial insults about Atticus’ defense of Tom to Scout and Jem, and the children fear and despise her wrath. They are initially unaware of her addiction, but Atticus knows. Yet he continues to warmly greet Mrs. Dubose with genteel Southern charm, which amazes his daughter.

“It was times like these,” Scout says, “when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man in the world.”

Angered by Mrs. Dubose’s racist insults of Atticus, Jem cuts the tops off her flowers. Jem’s punishment is to read to the woman daily. Later, he learns his readings helped cure her addiction.

And then there is Boo Radley, a recluse in a deteriorating house whose mysterious reputation fascinates the kids. They fear Boo, too. In the end, though, he saves their lives from the vengeful, drunkard father of Tom Robinson’s accuser, Mayella Ewell. Atticus’ defense of Tom unwittingly humiliated Mayella’s dysfunctional father in the courtroom, and he vowed revenge. Boo emerges from the shadows, stops Bob Ewell’s assault on Jem and Scout, and stabs the angry man to death.

The sheriff decides Ewell fell on his own knife. Boo, the unlikely hero, will not face trial.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” does not neatly right all of the wrongs. Yet its clear presentation of ambiguous moral issues makes the book ideal to teach, Miller said. Other classics, such as Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” broach similar themes but with more rough edges exposed.

“But it’s important to remember that perfection and teachability aren’t everything,” Miller said. “‘Huck Finn’ is a much greater book — but also a messier, less perfect book, and therefore more difficult to teach.”

The setting and characters in “Mockingbird” seem to be Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala. The young narrator, Scout, appears to be Lee in her own childhood. The writer lives in Monroeville, enigmatically. She’s never written another book. In 50 years, she’s rarely discussed it or even mentioned its title publicly. In a brief, updated, 1993 foreword to the novel, Lee reiterated her distaste for introductions in books, and added, “‘Mockingbird’ still says what it has to say.”

And millions are still hearing it.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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