Four stars (of five)
Revisiting Harper Lee’s classic piece of American literature added new dimensions to a story that has highlighted one of America’s darkest times, as well as built the moral foundation for scores of children not censored by bigoted school boards or ignorant libraries. The story plays out in Maycomb, Alabama where the Depression’s lingering effects prove daunting. Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch and her brother, Jem, live a modest to poor life with their father, Atticus. The elder Finch makes his living as a lawyer and seeks to create a just world for the county folk and his children alike. Scout narrates from her perch as she explores life as a young tomboy, carving out an understanding of life in the South as only a young child might; with blissful ignorance and a thirst for knowledge. Unable to understand the need for order and rules, as dictated amongst the adult population, Scout and Jem find themselves in numerous situations ripe for a life lesson and Atticus always there to offer his wisdom. A house at the end of the block, the Radley home, holds much curiosity and speculation for the Finch children, though there are never able to coax its most elusive inhabitant, Boo, outside to dispel the myths that surround him. When Atticus takes on the case of a negro man accused of raping a white girl, the town applies labels to Atticus and the Finch children learn the true meaning of Southern hospitality, where you are judged by the company you keep, not the purity of your heart. Once the jury returns with their verdict, childhood innocence leads Jem and Scout to believe justice is blind and the truth will set you free. The fallout divides the town and leaves the Finch children to wonder if all their beliefs are paper thin. As Lee pushes the novel towards its completion, the reader learns a little more about the resiliency of the Finches and the lengths to which some will go to plant seeds of hatred. As complex as it is simple, Lee offers an approach that weighs idealism against realism, hoping they might one day coexist!
When I chose to revisit this novel, twenty-one years later, I was not sure what to expect. I decided before I tackled Lee’s second novel, I ought to refresh myself, and it was a good thing I did so, as much had faded from my memory. Lee offers up a simple story, woven into a complex set of vignettes, whose purpose only becomes clear once the reader takes a step back. A social commentary as much as it is a quasi-biographical piece, Lee pulls no punches in her telling, which explains why the literary world lauded such praise on her while her neighbours sought to vilify her and suppress her message from reaching youths of the time. A book that opened the eyes of many to the injustice that was going on and sanctioned for so long became the symbol for the oppression it sought to defeat with many trying to sweep its message under the proverbial rug. While it tended to be wordy in places and lacked some editorial polish, Lee’s story is one of justice, though its ending does not appear that way. As Scout learns early on, justice is not always found, but the admission that it exists is a battle worth having, no matter the consequences. A powerful piece whose message need not be ignore or forgotten for generations to come. History cannot change if humans cannot learn from their follies. Alas, these follies have begun reemerging in the South, so let this serve as an extinguisher of ignorance and a beacon towards societal acceptance.
Kudos, Madam Lee, for this powerful novel. I cannot wait to see how the prequel/sequel plays out with some of the same actors.