Michael McCooe – Common Era: To Kill a Mockingbird

In 1960, writer Harper Lee published her legendary novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Set in the middle of the Great Depression, it tells the story of the crisis of conscience that hits a sleepy Southern US town, when lawyer Atticus Finch is tasked with defending a black man against false rape allegations.

Child’s curiosity

To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the town of Maycomb, where widowed lawyer Atticus lives with his daughter Scout and son Jem. It opens during a summer, when Scout and Jem befriend a boy called Dill who has recently moved to the area. Over the summer, Dill becomes ever-more fascinated by Radley Place, a spooky house located on the street where they live. It’s owned by Mr. Nathan Radley, whose brother Arthur (nicknamed Boo) has lived there in seclusion for years, never venturing outside.

During the following year, Scout and Jem keep finding presents in a knothole of a tree on the Radley estate, believing these gifts are meant for them. Dill returns the next summer and on his last night in Maycomb, the trio sneak onto the Radley land. They are shot at by Nathan, causing Jem to lose his trousers as they flee but when they return to recover said trousers, the kids find them folded up over a fence. The next winter, Scout and Jem find more presents in the knothole, which Nathan eventually decides to block with cement. Shortly after he does this however, a fire strikes a neighbouring house.

Atticus’ decision

After the fire, Scout soon becomes convinced that it was Boo’s doing. She tells her father about the trousers and presents to back up her claim, by implying that Boo has mental health issues. Afterwards Atticus agrees to represent a black man called Tom Robinson against charges of rape, infuriating Maycomb’s racist white community, whose children then begin to regularly harass Scout and Jem. This continues at Christmas, so the Finch’s black house keeper, Calpurnia, takes them to celebrate the holiday at a local black church, where they’re embraced by its friendly, tight-knit community.

The following summer Alexandra, Atticus’ sister, comes to stay with the Finch family. Meanwhile, that summer Dill was supposed to stay in another town with his “new father” but he runs away to Maycomb. We then move onto the night before Tom’s trial, when he is placed in a local jail, which is soon surrounded by a mob composed of the townspeople, but Atticus eventually faces them down. After sneaking out of the house, Atticus is joined by his children and Jem recognises one of the men in the mob.  She gently questions the man about his son, shaming him into breaking up the mob.

Tom’s trial

Harper Lee then takes us into Tom’s trial, informing us that for the duration of the session, the children sit with the town’s black community in the courtroom’s ‘coloured gallery.’ During the trial, Atticus uses evidence to prove that Tom’s accuser, Mayella Ewell and her father Bob, are lying. In fact, Mayella propositioned Tom but when the pair were found by her father, the latter man beat Mayella and forced her to cry rape. The all-white jury convicts Tom anyway and after he tries to escape prison, he is shot. This deeply shakes Jem’s trust in justice, causing him to become despondent and doubtful.

We then find out that Bob believes Atticus and the trial’s judge have turned him into a fool, despite the verdict and he swears revenge. Bob hounds Tom’s widow, attempts to break into the judge’s home and then attacks Atticus’ children as they’re walking home from a Halloween bash, but they’re saved by Boo, who stabs Bob fatally as they struggle. Boo then carries a wounded Jem home, after which the town’s sheriff tells the local population that Bob tripped and fell on his own knife, to protect the children’s saviour. Boo then disappears back into the Radley house, after sitting with Scout for a while.

Afterwards, Scout starts to see life from Boo’s perspective, something Atticus told her to do earlier in the book after he caught her, Jem and Dill mocking the loner. In Scout’s eyes, Boo has finally become a human being, causing her to take her father’s advice to treat others with sympathy. As To Kill a Mockingbird closes, we come to understand that yes, Scout has seen what hatred and prejudice can do throughout the book’s plot, but she hasn’t let it destroy her faith in the goodness of humanity.

Harper’s point

In To Kill a Mockingbird, which was somewhat based on Harper Lee’s own experiences growing up as a girl in Alabama, we see that fear of the unfamiliar is a dangerous thing. As it did in the segregation era of Southern US history, this fear breeds hatred, causing terrible consequences for those who become the target of this hate. To Kill a Mockingbird primarily explores racism, but its key point can be applied much wider. If we strive to learn about what scares us, we’ll find the goodness in everyone.

You can also read a blog by Michael McCooe on Classical Music.