Sunday, July 24, 2011

Books That Grab Me: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

Yes, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is literary fiction of the best sort, a bildungsroman of a young girl, the filter through which we get to meet the great character Atticus Finch -- but it's also a crime novel.  The obvious crime lies at the center of the book, the accused rape of a poor white woman by a black man, a false accusation revealed to be false in a full courtroom yet rubber stamped by an all-white jury.  This is the set of plot events that draw most of the attention of the story, the moralizing lessons in the classroom where most who come to love this book first encounter it, but the story competes with itself, offering up other crimes, each one more intriguing, more puzzling than the last.

The parallel to the false accusation is the story's real sexual crime, incest in the Ewell clan, but that's neither charged nor avenged in the pages of the book.  Even though the perpetrator of that crime never gets so much as a slap on the wrist, he feels the shame of what he's done inside his family once it's exposed to wider society: which leads to the next nexus of crime, the stalking of Atticus Finch and the others involved in the trial, the threats levied against Finch and his children, and the eventual attempted murder of his children, Jem and Scout Finch.  Ewell dies in the opaque scene near the end for his crime of envisioning child murder, but he could have been stopped earlier for his perjury, for his physical and sexual violence toward his family members.  Instead, a laissez-faire attitude prevails, leaving Ewell unhindered as he goes mad, becomes a kind of real monster.

Listening to the audiobook over the last few weeks, I've gained a new appreciation for the "Boo" Radley elements that open and close the book.  Here is perhaps the oddest crime, the one we have no laws against, the man imprisoned by his family out of some kind of familial justice to enforce "upstanding living," which leaves Arthur forgotten about by society.  As a young man Arthur Radley fell in with bad elements and, in lieu of formal punishment lasting months or a few years, his father demanded to handle the situation.  It became almost a life sentence for Arthur, who lost his individual identity as he transmuted into the local culture as some malign spirit called "Boo," making a person into a spooky story, obliterating him.

In this book, in its thick, knotty veins of beautiful writing, lie serious crimes sketched well, set up for our curiosity and fright.  It's not just a story of race.  It's not just a story of Atticus Finch revealing his quiet grace to his children who saw him as an old man.  It's the story of an imperfect place, an idyll for children until it's shattered.  A society that obliterates one of its own and does nothing about crimes committed between family members, horrible crimes legislated against and worse ones that appear in no law books.  The book is a far deeper indictment than it's usually credited with providing.  It deserves to be read and dug through, but not as a simple tale of racial justice.  It has a deeper, more profound, more skeptical view of justice.  Injustice lives on every street in the story, if one is brave enough to look.

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