When the news of a long-hidden sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird was announced, we decided to reread it together as a refresher before Go Set a Watchman is released. Please join the discussion below!Our backgrounds with the book
Wendy: I loved this book when I read it in high school, though I have to admit that in the years since, I associate it strongly with the film. It’s one of those cases where the movie captured the ideals and feel of the source material so well that I think of them almost interchangeably. And with this re-read, I listened to the audiobook performed by Sissy Spacek, which was wonderful! So now I’ll forever remember all three things as perfectly complementary.
Layla: I … don’t think I’d read this book before! Which is weird, because I felt like I had at some point, but then, as I was reading this, recognized absolutely nothing. And I haven’t seen the movie either, which is pretty strange too given how much I like Gregory Peck. Anyway, it was cool to get to read this for what felt like the first time. I’ll hunt down the movie!
Kim: I first read this for class in 8th grade and I have loved it ever since. It’s also one of the very few books I was forced to read for school that I actually enjoyed. Blame my contrarian-ness and my extreme mood reader sensitivities. I still have my original tattered, well loved paperback copy all marked up with the highlights and notes that my teacher instructed us to make. I agree with you, Wendy. The film adaptation is one of those rare times that a movie captures the spirit, feel, and essence of the book so closely. I love both almost equally.
Characters / Writing
Wendy: Scout Finch! What an aggressively independent kid. You know, I always thought Ramona Quimby bore a lot of resemblance to her, and I wondered if Beverly Cleary might’ve been slightly influenced by this novel. But it turns out the first two Ramona books were already out by the time To Kill a Mockingbird was published, so there goes that theory. Mary Badham, the young actress who plays Scout in the film, is still the ONLY person I’ve ever been able to imagine as Ramona, though.
Kim: Scout is one of those characters who is instantly and eminently lovable to me. I have to confess I have never read a Ramona Quimby book, though. Don’t look at me like that, Wendy!
Wendy: Um, you KNOW what’s going to happen soon, then. :D
Kim: Every time I read that first line, the feeling comes over me that you get whenever tucking into an old favorite: It feels like coming home, like falling into a warm, comfortable blanket at the end of a long day. This book is such a paradise for character-readers like me. Such a large cast and they bring the entire town to life.
Layla: Ramona Quimby, eh? See, whereas I was thinking a little bit of Harriet the Spy. There are moments early in the book – where we’re learning about characters in the town through Scout, or when she’s trying to convince Atticus not to send her to school – where she reminded me of Harriet a little bit. And Harriet is an onion in a pageant, while Scout is a ham!
Wendy: Atticus is written in an almost saintly manner–he continues to be mentioned as a model for both fathers and lawyers. I think it’s interesting that we know next to nothing about his wife–the choice to tell this story from a child’s point of view meant that many explanations are omitted, which I think works to the novel’s benefit in the sense that you’re put more immediately into Scout’s POV (although presumably some of the narrative is from her perspective as an adult). It’s realistic that there are many things she doesn’t know or doesn’t think to ask. I like how the reader needs to connect the dots even when the protagonist does not.
Kim: Oh, Wendy. You always make such excellent points that never even occur to me to think about. This is true and I never even realized. I guess because I was only 13 when I first read it and I’m so used to having first experienced from such young eyes myself. I’m especially intrigued to see how things will look from Scout’s adult perspective given that Go Set a Watchmen was written before TKAM. What will be the disconnect, if any, with having a duology written out of order?
Layla: Yes! This is one of the things that struck me most about this book – like, how interesting it is that we’re asked as readers to figure out stuff that Scout herself doesn’t know? (And how terrifying this is at some moments – for example, the scene where Atticus is guarding Tom Robinson at the jail and Scout’s like “surprise! here I am!” So she’s going on and on about Mr. Cunningham’s entailment because she’s trying to make polite conversation when, um, those people are there to do violence. And it’s only later that she realizes what was going on.) And it’s more than the fact that she’s just a child, right? She’s a child who’s been sheltered in many ways – there’s that moment during the trial when Dill has to be taken outside because he’s sick to his stomach at the way everyone is treating Tom Robinson, and Scout … just doesn’t get it. She thinks he hasn’t gotten over traveling yet, and they have that conversation with Dolphus Raymond where he tries to explain to her that everyone in the world isn’t like Atticus.
Wendy: That moment where Scout doesn’t realize she’s stopped a terrible, probably violent situation is done so well in both the book and the film. The fear you feel for her as an adult pushing into a volatile situation is soothed, as Mr. Cunningham is, by her innocence. Hey, did you know that Dill was based on Truman Capote?! Apparently he and Harper Lee grew up together.
Layla: I didn’t know this. I did know they grew up together because of the speculation that he ghost-wrote To Kill a Mockingbird (which, no.)
Kim: What makes this book such a stand out to me is that it opened me up to seeing more to people than their surface layers. I promise you, maybe it seems so obvious now, but reading this at 13 was truly mind blowing. I am always haunted by Mrs. Dubose, the awful, racist elderly neighbor. Yes, she’s awful (and obviously her racism is not to be excused) and I hated her about as much as Scout & Co did, but that moment when Atticus exposes the woman’s humanity to the children is forever etched in my brain. The battles most people wage in life are often internal. Every time I read this book I’m humbled and reminded all over again that no matter high nasty, mean, or unpleasant people can be, there’s often some battle going on below the surface that we couldn’t even begin to guess at.
Layla: Oh, that character is just awful. (I get that she’s super old and sick, but man, she is an awful racist and it does really seem like she’s trying to torment Jem from beyond the grave!) And yeah, that’s a super interesting moment to go to. I responded differently to Atticus’s account of her humanity? I know why Atticus reads Mrs. Dubose the way he does, since he too “knows he’s licked” before he begins but sees it through anyway, but … it’s weird to me. I also get not wanting to die addicted to morphine, but his framing of her desire to die not being “beholden to nothing or no one” as a good thing just struck me as odd (in a book that is about the responsibility that members of the community have towards one another?). I don’t know, that moment was weird to me.
Layla: The way that Lee writes about this town is quite possibly my favorite part of the book. I’m a sucker for anything that feels like an intimate look at a small community – where you feel like you get to know various personalities in the town, and read about families’ feuds and dramas. (But this has its dark side, too? I don’t know, it’s not like … reading about the Sloanes or the Pyes in Anne of Green Gables, you’re not actually able to stay at a safe remove from what’s going on in the text. Once Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson becomes known and his trial moves forward, you’re basically watching this community you’ve come to know turn on Tom Robinson and anyone involved in the case.)
Wendy: Mine, too. You really get a feel for the rhythms of this small town and practically hear the hinges squeaking on the porch and see kids running down the street. I also liked the chapters that were set during Halloween. The kids’ adventures are both fun and slightly spooky, as they should be.
Portrayal of crime through a child’s lens
Wendy: The crime that is the focus of the trial (Mayella Ewell accusing Tom Robinson of rape) is such a serious charge for book narrated by a girl who is only nine–and the crimes that were actually perpetrated are just as serious. From the false accusation to the persecution of a man who is innocent, defenseless, and forced into a hopelessly deferential position, Tom Robinson is more of a mysterious symbol than a real person as seen through Scout’s eyes.
She said she never kissed a grown man before… She says what her papa do to her don’t count.
There is also the crime of Mr. Ewell’s abuse of his daughter. I’ve seen people question whether there was incest here, but in my mind there is no doubt. Between various pieces of 19-year-old Mayella’s “prim” testimony and the questionable fact that there are seven other children in the Ewell household even though the mother died many years ago, there’s no question that this poor “white trash” girl was badly treated.
Kim: It is undoubtedly tragic all around. I also have never had any doubt that Mayella (and likely others as well) was abused by Mr. Ewell. It’s a terrible combination of cruelty of the abuse cycle (the abused going on to abuse, or inflict pain and damage on others), the inherit racism of the 1930s South, and the unfortunate power structures of the time (older white men rule all). Who would protect Mayella if she brought charges against her father and most likely lost? Who would look out for the other children? It’s a combination of societal ills all brought into one incredible tangle of nastiness.
Wendy: How do you feel the racial tension was portrayed in this book? In recent years, there’s been a lot of criticism leveled at this book for contributing to the “white savior” trope, as well as charges of insidious “kindly” racism. While the repeated reinforcements of such ideas has become problematic, I wonder if that’s fair considering that the book was written over 50 years ago, just as the civil rights movement was gaining its footing. You can see it in the language, in Calpurnia’s presence, and Aunt Alexandra’s attitude towards her.
Kim: My opinion on this really shouldn’t count for much since I’m a white person but here it is: I think the novel is important as a time capsule, of sorts. It’s a look into a time and place and how the existing power structures and prejudices brought together and made possible this particular convergence of awful. And I think it’s asking us to watch out and do all that can be done to not return to such a place.
Wendy: Yes. You see it here on the most basic level–your efforts will not always succeed, but you must try.
Kim: It’s important to have the existence of this time and place captured for reflection, and study, and for an example of where we should never be again and to look and be able to see how far we’ve come in society, and also how far there is still to go. And to always, always relentlessly push forward. That being said I do wish there was a book of equal prominence in the culture that examines this same time period and featured Black characters primarily. When this book is studied in school there should be complementary Black literature explored alongside it.
Layla: I think it’s a product of its time and that it did/does important work, but that doesn’t mean that it gets a pass on perpetuating stereotypes or expressing problematic ideologies. And I do think those things are there in the text. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valuable or useful book – to echo Kim’s point a little, it can still help us think critically about the role of racism in structuring contemporary American society. (I feel like we’re not all that far from the world Harper Lee writes about.) To address the point you made earlier, Wendy, like you, I’m also not sure we ever get Tom Robinson as more than a symbol? And I do think that’s a problem for me as well. Many of the other characters in the book are way more fleshed out than he is. Additionally, it kind of bothers me that the emotional drama in this book is not really around Tom Robinson’s case or its impact on the Black community in the novel as much as it is the effect of that case on white people. Like, the moment where the Boo Radley storyline and the Tom Robinson storyline finally come together – what seems like the emotional climax of the novel – it’s centered on a threat to white childhood.
Wendy: As an adult, that bothered me, too. Just a few more paragraphs would have helped considerably; I can only think that these weaknesses can be attributed to perhaps the author writing from and sharing her perspective, as well as perhaps still unconsciously shaped by some of the attitudes she grew up with. I think for its time it was considered quite progressive, and while I understand some of the reasons people are upset by what’s lacking here (especially with the benefit of all these years of social progress), I think it’s still a very important book. One that likely helped pave the way for many books and readers that followed after it.
The way class divide is portrayed here is also interesting; I was struck by how grindingly poor and generally “no good” the Ewells were. I think there is a lot of implied criticism towards their ignorant, crass behavior and crimes, as well as towards Aunty.
Revisiting this book as an adult, I do find that I wanted a little bit more from the portrayals of Tom Robinson, Calpurnia, the Ewells, Boo Radley, and various other characters. Some of this can be put down to the time, as well as the young narrator. It should be interesting to see if Go Set a Watchman rounds out any of those characters, or provides any further context since Scout will be coming back to visit Atticus as an adult.
Wendy: 4 stars. It was 5 stars when I originally read it, and I still do love it as a coming of age story. I think there are ways, even allowing for historical context as far as style and racial issues are concerned, that the characters could have been more fleshed out.
I’m also not really sure what to make of the Boo Radley story as a whole. The idea of this shy man locked away in his house and peeping out from time to time on the children is something that tugs at you, but I didn’t find this plot thread as compelling this time around. A lot of mockingbirds in this story.
Kim: 5 stars. I do see the flaws in the story, and its problematic areas, but I think my sentimental attachment to this, and the way that it opened my young eyes to the humanity of others will always make it a five star for me.
Layla: 4 stars. Totally agreed on the Boo Radley story, though I also maybe wanted more there around his character. (It seems like he’s been abused by his father and is still being controlled by his brother, and ack, what happens to him when the story’s over? He just goes back to never leaving his house once he rescues those kids? Sad forever.)
Educators Take a Hard Look at To Kill a Mockingbird
Warmly Embrace a Racist Novel
To Resurrect a (rebuttal to the above post)
A Brief List of White Savior Films (and commentary)
African-American History Timeline
Photographs courtesy of Universal Pictures, as well as the respective Etsy sellers individually linked above.
Our next book is going to put you in a summery mood if you’re not already there. Horseback rides! Strawberry pop! Secret call signals! The Secret of the Mansion is the first book in a middle grade mystery series written in the 1950s, and is tumbling with good humor and mysterious goings-on in a charming small town.Think Nancy Drew with a younger, scrappier, less Mary Sue of a heroine. Actually, Trixie’s a bit of a mess, as many of us are at that age, but her instincts about people are dead on.
I loved this series as a kid, and this Twitter discussion between me and Kim made me realize there were other fans out there, too, as well as those who’d never even heard of the series! So I hope you’ll join us, especially if you like nostalgic reads with good family and friends and food. With a nice dash of mystery to boot.
Title: The Secret of the Mansion (Trixie Belden #1)
Author: Julie Campbell
Discussion Date: Friday, July 31st
Trixie’s summer is going to be so boring with her two older brothers away at camp. But then a millionaire’s daughter moves into the next-door mansion, an old miser hides a fortune in his decrepit house, and a runaway kid starts hiding out in Sleepyside!
If you’d like to get a head start on August’s book, we’ll be reading The Girl with the Silver Eyes.
Do join us for Trixie Belden in July! It’s a lighter book, so a nice change of pace after the serious issues we discussed this month.