Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Finding Context for the Mockingbird: Books to Pair with Harper Lee's

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird.

For the casual book blog, there's not much to say about To Kill a Mockingbird. It is, in fact, a well-conceived story about racism in the South, designed to provoke and also to challenge. It is an engaging book (if a bit tedious in spots), the values are good, and Scout, the precocious child narrator, adds a great deal to the story. On a deeper level, Scout herself is used to present both a child's increasing awareness of racism (and other sins) as well as an outsider's view of the repulsion with which her brother Jem learns about--and reacts to--this racism. The parallel between Scout's growin logic and understanding and Jem's flaring anger works well, and the perspective used to represent the story, for me, works exceptionally well.

Although I enjoyed revisiting this novel, at this stage in my life I'm struck not by the profundity with which it represents the problems of racism, nor even by its applicability, but by the prevalence and predominance of white novels about racism published in the last fifty years. This isn't a critique to apply solely to Lee; I appreciate both the aim and the effect of the novel. Rather, I wonder why To Kill a Mockingbird and A Time to Kill and the much more recent The Help (all novels I have enjoyed in varying degrees) have had so much more commercial and educational success than Native Son or even Invisible Man. Many of these novels present similar perspectives and ideals, but the voice of the white narrator still, repeatedly, gains prominence.

I don't want to imply in any way that To Kill a Mockingbird isn't an important work, and it does raise essential questions about the American treatment not only of people of differing races (from the African-Americans on whom the original novel is focused to the Mexicans whose border crossings are currently a major subject of American interest and concern) but also of people of differing abilities or interests. The parallel between reclusive Boo Radley and dark-skinned Tom Robinson is important: the novel is about coming to grips with the unique qualities--or differences--that distinguish each human from the next. Sometimes these distinctions appear in skin color, or a foreign (or regional) accent; at other times, they are made between people similar in shape and color who hold radically differing religious or political views. For me, the isolation of Boo Radley draws to mind the modern American marginalization of children with autism, down syndrome, or sensory impairments.

At the end of the novel, young Scout recognizes both that taking the time to befriend the unfamiliar is worthwhile, and that prejudice is prevalent in her (our) society. She is blessed (and not for the first time) by the presence of Boo Radley. However, I wish the novel extended past this moment (or that Lee had written a sequel); while Scout's discoveries and increased understanding are important, the novel shows the turning point rather than its long-term effects. To Kill a Mockingbird is a strong and important book, but it does not tell the whole story.

Read this book, and then read Invisible Man or Native Son. All of these are important works of literature, and they tell differing sides of the same story.

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