Set deep in the Depression-era South of the 1930s, the story covers three years in the life of young Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch and her brother Jem… three years marked by the arrest and trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely charged with the rape of a white girl.
Scout and Jem scarcely notice the goings-on until their lawyer father, Atticus Finch, agrees to take the case and defend Robinson in court: a fact that the two children (and the other inhabitants of Maycomb, Alabama) are staggered by.
Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel is ostensibly a courtroom drama, but such a description does not really do this profound and multifaceted book justice. At once poignant, wise, and humorous, Mockingbird is a tale of such excellence that, to quote the Chicago Tribune, “it will no doubt make a great many readers slow down to relish more fully its simple distinction.
Lee’s writing is graced with an elegance so unspectacular it’s spectacular; more than once, I had to pause and read passages aloud, just for the pleasure of rolling them off my tongue.
The book concerns itself with a number of weighty, adult themes, but Lee chooses to tell it through the eyes of a small child. It is within this context – the coming-of-age story or bildungsroman – that she explores the evils of racial prejudice. The result is both subtle and potent; a morality tale that never succumbs to didactic preachiness.
We’re also presented with an unforgettable picture of moral courage in the character of Atticus Finch. To most of the white folks in Maycomb, Tom Robinson was tried and condemned the moment he was accused. Atticus not only believes differently, he acts differently. Even when the odds are stacked against him, he takes a stand for justice and equity. One man contra mundum – against the world.
“This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience – Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
“Atticus, you must be wrong…”
“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…”
“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinion,” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” (p. 120)
Scout and her brother, and many others in Maycomb, come to respect him for that. One of the most touching scenes in the book occurs after the trial, when the town’s black minister tells Scout, “Miss Jean-Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” (p. 241)
Stand up, indeed.