To Kill A Mockingbird: Fathers, Scout and Me

The Romantic Novelists’ Association is not the only one with a 50th birthday this year. So does TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I admit that surprised me, maybe because the book is actually set in the thirties and the Depression stalks through it. To celebrate, there are loads of events being planned in the US and Harper Collins are publishing a book of ‘How Important the Book is to Me’  with contributions from notables, including Scott Torow and Oprah Winfrey.

That made me think of my own first reading of the book.  It was given to me by a cousin of my father’s who read voraciously and said, ‘This is probably too old for you.’  I read it in a sitting, even though there were moments when I could hardly bear to read on.  For a couple of weeks, maybe more, it knocked everything else out of my head – school, friends, hobbies, the lot – and I worked on autpilot, while in my head I wandered around in Maycomb, Alabama, desperately trying to work out how that trial could have gone right, instead of so appallingly, heartbreakingly wrong.    

Maybe I was too young to read the book, certainly I was too insular.  I knew nothing about racial tensions in the US or anywhere else, still less the Civil Rights Movement.  What got me by the throat was the tragedy of Tom Robinson,  completely helpess as things get out of hand, when a white woman fancies him and the forces of received opinion go on the rampage.  And Scout, tomboy, confident, hopeful Scout, who believes her father can do anything and slowly realizes that he can’t.  And Atticus.  Oh, Atticus, the first character who made me understand that being honest, and compassionate and logical is sometimes not enough. 

I broke my heart over Atticus, in way I didn’t over Tom.  Tom was the victim of a natural disaster, as if he’d been standing in the way of an avalanche.  There wasn’t anything he could do to prevent it or, once it had happened, to deal with the consequences.  He had to have a Champion and the Champion was Atticus.

So Atticus wasn’t supposed to be a victim, he was the Knight Errant, Robin Hood against the wicked self-servers.   He was supposed to defend the innocent and restore right.  By all the rules of justice, chivalry and story telling, Atticus should have been able to get that jury to see the truth.  And he failed.   Atticus’s defeat was my defeat.  His integrity was inspiring but not a consolation. I wept for both of us.  

Later, when I was older, I could see that everything was more complicated than I had first though, Atticus included.  Even today, if I re-read the book, I find new things to think about, new characteristics which explain people’s behaviour, including the most appalling. 

But what I took away that first time, was the shocked realisation that right doesn’t always prevail and fathers, even the most heroically rational fathers who try to do their best, aren’t all-powerful.  As a result, in a shuffling, embarrassed and not very articulate way, I grew very tender of my own father.  Up to then, we had simply fought.  

So yes, it opened my eyes to racism and the southern USA and the narrowness of small towns and the bullying that happens in small communities and how poverty makes people bitter and how bitter people look for people to blame and … and … and …  But the big thing for me was compassion, especially between father and daughter, and it slipped into the way I think about life, the universe and everything.  

A wonderful book.      

Happy Father’s Day.

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