Mimus polyglottos

By some crack in my English curriculum, To Kill a Mockingbird, skipped me. Thus, I felt some intangible responsibility to remove it from the list-of-books-I-should-have-read-in-seventh-grade.

I can see now the rationale for its accolades – the cherry-picked symbolism, precocious pre-teens, an approachable primer on southern race-relations. Yes, Harper Lee handles all those with admirable skill. But I think the true strength of the book lies in the voice of our narrator, Scout. Eloquence beyond her years (the naivete of a nine year old and the vernacular of a lawyer), creates a humorous juxtaposition. Fistfights with big brother, jumping into the local swimming hole, smashing bugs, even sneaking around the local haunted house are couched in the language of the state legislature.

On the surface, this is a story of kids growing up in a lazy Alabama town. For Scout (a bit of a tomboy), Jem (her brother), and Dill (a friend), their time is spent around the neighborhood, daring each other to touch the house of Boo Radley. But beneath all that is the trial of Tom Robinson, a poor black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell. Scout and Jem’s father Atticus is assigned Tom’s public defender. From there flows the moral center of the tale.

In the Southern Gothic tradition, justice and death are central themes. Who can die justly, rightly, and who must be killed by society (for the greater good or for appeasement)? Being a lawyer, Atticus has a curiously dogmatic way about him, and two scenes in particular reveal his stubbornness. In the first, Atticus is called upon to kill a rabid dog. He’s a crack shot, but he’s lethargic and sullen as he pulls the trigger. In this, he’s wary of directly killing another living thing.

In one of the final scenes (semi-spoilers), after his children have been saved by Boo Radley, he’s argues with the Sheriff over whether a trial should commence for the dead assailant. The sheriff literally puts his foot down, saying “death answers death.” Atticus finally relents, realizing a trial would fail to bring justice here, just as it failed Tom Robinson.

To Kill a Mockingbird makes a good case for the failings of our legal system. In an ideal scenario, trial by jury is a good approximation of justice. But when the players are clouded by race, class, stubbornness and ignorance, it becomes a farce of justice.

If there’s any weakness it’s the length. The first hundred pages could have been condensed into twenty five and kept much of the rich characterization and humorous childhood malapropisms. But overall, To Kill a Mockingbird has a well-earned status as classic. The South may have changed since the 1930s, but the core themes of race, class, justice and death are still as relevant today as they are then. Let’s hope this one stays on the seventh grade curriculum for many years to come.

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