This morning, news broke that Pulitzer Prize winning author Harper Lee had passed away at the age of 89. She had been in poor health for quite some time, so it came as no surprise to hear that she’d died. Nevertheless, it got me thinking about the impact she had on my adolescense, and why To Kill A Mockingbird has and always will be one of my favorites novels, as it is for so many other Americans.
Written in 1960 during the height of Jim Crow laws, Mockingbird is a snapshot of Scout Finch, a young girl being raised in Alabama by her attorney father, Atticus. We embark on the journey of growing up with Scout as she witnesses racism, death and the injustices of society. What overpowers the tragedy around her, though, is her father’s unwavering morals with which he defends an innocent African American man on trial for rape. Scout also displays her integrety when she befriends the town recluse, Boo Radley, who ultimately ends up saving her life.
When I read To Kill A Mockingbird in the 8th grade, I felt I had a clear image of what the book is about: doing the right thing, even when it’s not easy. As a 16 year old rereading Mockingbird, I discovered that the richness of the story’s moral lies within the tragedy of losing one’s innocence. In college, I was amazed at humility of true heroism .
That’s what great storytelling is: timeless exposition. To Kill A Mockingbird is children’s literature, but it resonates with everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, etc. It is the tale of what it means to be human. The last line of the book is Scout’s account of Atticus kissing her goodnight and staying by her brother’s bedside til morning. It is in this final statement where Harper Lee made her intentions known: the choices we make, big and small, define our true character.
I regard Atticus Finch as the greatest literay hero, mainly because I see so much of him in my own parents. Atticus is intelligent, incorruptible and courageous, yet he is gentle and kind and selfless. Sure, there have been times when my parents have personified these traits in grand, epic gestures (which often times is not easy), but for the most part, their virtue is in the ordinary. I see Atticus Finch when my mother cares for my grandmother suffering from dementia. I see Atticus Finch when my father forgoes sleep for helping family members with his professional expertise (he’s a lawyer, too). Or maybe…I should say I see my mother in Atticus Finch when he tells Scout not to shoot mockingbirds, for innocents should be protected…or I see my father in Atticus Finch when he denies his peers’ prejudiced opinions with respect and compassion.
Harper Lee’s characters serve as mirrors to what the world is and what it should be. She gave us the fictionalized versions of people we already knew, both good and evil. But she doesn’t spell this out for us. She presents a tale of a girl coming of age who is learning to face the harsh realities of the world and how those around her help her grow. Her father encourages her, just as my parents have encouraged me, and their parents before them. And Scout’s friends and enemies help her to grow, just as my peers teach me through our interactions. To Kill A Mockingbird challenges us to look within ourselves and decide what we stand for, because it is in these answers where we discover who we really are and what our legacy will be.