Though it is a book required in multiple high school curriculums, I was surprised to learn that a number of Lawrentians and one of my professors had never read Harper Lee’s classic novel. This is one of my all-time favorite novels, so much so that it was the focus of my senior capstone. It is an easy read, a little under 300 pages, and is one of the best books within modern American literature.
The book follows a young Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch as she grows up in Maycomb County, Ala. during the Great Depression. She lives with her brother Jem, father Atticus and housekeeper Calpurnia; her mother died when she was a baby. The first half of the novel is light and carefree. Scout and Jem make friends with their neighbor Dill, they play games around the neighborhood and try to make the recluse “Boo” Radley come out of his house as they believe all the malicious rumors the town has said about him.
It is within these chapters that Lee expertly weaves in traces of prejudice in a tale of childhood play. She tackles issues of class when Scout gets into a fight with a young boy named Walter Cunningham, who she reluctantly invites to dinner as an apology, allowing readers to see that Walter has not had a decent meal in weeks. Though there are subtle weavings in the first half of the book, Lee begins to tackle major issues head-on in the latter half as she forces Scout and Jem to grow up and lose their idyllic view of the world around them.
The second half of the novel consists of the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Atticus has been assigned as Tom’s lawyer, and he builds a strong defense. Some of the most riveting scenes in literature take place in the Maycomb County courtroom, as both Scout and the reader realize that no matter how strong Atticus’s defense is, the white jury will find the black Tom guilty. (If you do not want to read the book but still see this incredible scene, check out the movie starring Gregory Peck—it does the book justice.) On top of all this, the white bigots of the town are pissed that Atticus is defending a black man, and they try to intimidate him in any way they can.
I will not spoil any of the plot, though I will say that the trial is not the end of the book. The ending, featuring a character almost forgotten during the trial, is very satisfactory, if not in the way we want. Lee, who wrote this book in the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, has a clear message about racism in our country. Maybe our politicians today should read this book —it might help them see prejudice more clearly.