This Southern drama by Harper Lee is published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics and is written for adults but is sometimes studied by high school classes.
In their small Southern town, Scout and Jem Finch start out as innocent youngsters who play, attend school and attempt to communicate with their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley. Their lawyer father, Atticus, always proffers wise insights for living. For example, he tells them it's a sin to kill a mockingbird, since mockingbirds do nothing harmful but simply sing. Though a peace lover and gentleman, Atticus finds himself in the midst of fierce social turmoil as he defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. The entire town becomes swept up in the trial. Scout and Jem learn hard lessons about social inequity, personal restraint and compassion. When Boo Radley ultimately saves the children's lives, it solidifies their resolve to care for the "mockingbirds" in their society.
Scout asserts that church is their town's "principle recreation"; she says she spent long hours in church copying chapters from the Bible, which is part of how she learned to read and write. The Finch family's most noteworthy ancestor, Simon Finch, was a stingy and pious Methodist. Scout and a neighbor discuss the rift between the city's "foot-washing Baptists" and non-foot washers. (The foot washers criticize a neighbor for having beautiful flowers, because they believe anything that brings pleasure is a sin.) When the children attend church with the black housekeeper, Calpurnia, they witness a pastor who brazenly reports some congregants' sins from the pulpit — but also refuses to let anyone leave the church until they've given enough money to help a family in trouble.
Atticus Finch teaches his children tough life lessons by talking to them like grown-ups and by allowing them to witness some difficult realities. His actions provide them with an example of how to show compassion to others, and he refuses to force his children to adhere to the social expectations and class distinctions of their day. Calpurnia, a stern but loving black woman, respects her neighbors and friends by not flaunting her ability to read and speak well. Aunt Alexandra comes to live with the family, intending to help Atticus instill some good upbringing into the children; Atticus makes it clear he won't allow his children to absorb her condescending opinions of others and her rigid view of how society should operate.
Other Belief Systems
Prejudice — racial (the term n-gger is used repeatedly) and otherwise — plays a key role in the story. Jem tells Scout and Dill about "hot steams," dead people who can't get into heaven so they walk around sucking out others' breath. He also contends that if a whole stadium full of people would concentrate on the same thing at once, the object would burst into flame.
Jacka--, son-of-a-b--ch, d--n, h---, b--tard and godd--n whore all appear.
A black man stands trial for raping a white woman; fairly tame accounts of the event are provided in the courtroom scenes. Dill gives Scout quick kisses.
To Kill a Mockingbird won a Pulitzer Prize. Librarians across America agree with the New York Public Library in their selection of this book as one of the best of the 20th century.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Can you think of any modern-day "mockingbirds" (innocent people who are persecuted by society)?
- Where do you witness social inequality today?
- Through her description of Scout's early schooling, we get the impression the author doesn't have much faith in institutional education. She seems to feel children can learn more about values — and everything else — at home.
What do you think?
- Do you think it was right that Boo Radley wasn't tried for murder?
- Why do you think Atticus made the children read to mean Mrs. Dubose?
- What did he want them to learn from that experience?
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