Tuesday, October 12, 2004

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the first book I ever read. I think I had to study it in year 8, so I must have been about 12 or 13. What I recall of it was its brilliant sense of humour, or more to the point, that of the narrator, 'Scout' Finch, the young tomboy of the novel.

Now that I've read it again some 23 years later, the standout of the novel is still the narrative voice. No wonder I found the film version so disappointing - the humourous, humanistic joy of the novel has been ripped out. In contrast, the film seems totally wooden. Not to say the film is crap, it's just different.

As I was reading the early part of the novel I thought, I bet the writers of the Simpsons are very familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird. It has that humanistic pulse running the whole way through. Then near the end of the novel I came across something that happens in the Simpsons. The children in the novel go to a fair that is held at the local school. One of the features is a darkened room which is like a 'horror room'. In the dark a plate is passed around with two grapes on it - the kids are told it's two eyes. Then a plate of spaghetti. Everyone is told it's someone's innards. And so on. Marge Simpson does the same thing in one of the Simpsons episodes.

It's amazing to think that Harper Lee never wrote another novel. She comes across as a born natural. To Kill a Mockingbird was written in her mid thirties. At first it was more a series of loosely connected stories, but a publisher told her to go back and make it more cohesive. She spent a couple of years with an editor whipping it into shape.

I must admit, it does show. Boo Radley, spook of Jem and Scout's young imaginations, goes missing half way through the novel. The trial of Tom Robinson then takes over. Suddenly at the end Boo Radley appears again, saving the children from attempted murder. A moral is then made: what may spook you may one day save your life. I bet Harper Lee's editor suggested the novel be wrapped up in this way. It's just too suspicious that Boo Radley is dropped half way through the novel.

Nevertheless, it all works marvelously. I just loved the chapters about the horrible town grump Mrs Dubois, who sits on her porch with a loaded gun under her shawl, hollering abuse at all passers by. Plus the school teacher with new fangled ideas on education.

The novel also reminded me of how many similar novels have been written about Americans living in dire poverty. It's the opposite of the American dream, as outlined by the likes of Ayn Rand. Funny that there are all these American classics that are about decent poor people being crushed under adversity (the best example I guess is the Grapes of Wrath, probably a sacred text to many Americans).

A genuine American folk classic.

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