Strengths: Tension builds to a crescendo where you just have to finish it.
Weaknesses: The only book written by Harper Lee.
Why I read it: I didn’t get to read it at school.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Strangely enough, this is the first time I’ve read this book. Unlike many teenagers, this was not a required text for my English Literature class at school. You know what? I feel mighty ripped off. The English class read this book, but apparently the Literature class (which I was only in because it ‘balanced’ my ratio of Humanities to Science) was too cool for this book. (We read Patrick White, which does not compare and completely turned me off his works).
Oh how wrong. This is a fantastic, captivating, interesting and dramatic piece of LITERATURE. Take that high school!
The premise is simple – Scout (real name Jean Louise) and Jem (Jeremy) are the children of one of the most underrated heroes of literature, Atticus Finch. Atticus is a local lawyer in Maycomb, called on to represent a black man charged with raping a white woman. The book captures the essence of 1930s Alabama in a way that so few books do – right down to manners, social conventions and racism. The book simmers with undertones – how the different races act towards each other, how the different classes act, how ‘different’ people are treated (such as Boo Radley, who appears to have a mental illness) and how it doesn’t make sense to children such as Scout and Jem.
Scout is the first person narrator. It is told with her looking back at the events that unfolded starting with the summer before she started school and culminating several years later. With the wisdom of age, Scout adopts a more mature tone and thought process than for example, Jack from Room. But it also allows us to see the racism and prejudice going on through her innocent eyes.
Scout is a tomboy, who prefers overalls to dresses and solves fights with fisticuffs. Despite her getting in a lot of trouble for her ways, it is her strength of character and willingness to fight – not just in the schoolyard, but against adult bullies – that makes her likeable and effective. Atticus is a true hero in his own way – he quietly fights for what is right (his courtroom scenes are subtle, yet powerful) and lets his children have just enough freedom for them to develop as individuals.
What makes this book work? A lot of things – the characters are endearing and/or memorable, even the minor ones (Miss Maudie, who the children turn to for advice and cookies, is delightful in her straight-talking ways), the slow build of tension that reaches a crescendo with the court case and that even though dramatic events unfold, there’s a lot of real life in there. Not everything goes to plan, not everything happens the way it should
This is a book you can read over and over, taking pleasure in different things each time. Don’t write it off as something to study, this book should be celebrated for the masterpiece it is.