Summer of Southern Women: To Kill a Mockingbird

We've been reading all summer, wading through awakenings, purple things, and even some blood with strangely wise qualities to finally make it to the inimitable and legendary Harper Lee. Michelle and I have just finished Lee's 55-year-old classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, and we're finally ready to discuss our thoughts and feelings on such a momentous book:

V: To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those books that I'd always meant to read but never had much of a chance, and it's the book that's earned me the most flabbergasted and disbelieving looks from telling people I hadn't read it. So getting to finally read it after all this time (and all those English classes where it was mentioned with such reverence and love) was a strange and slightly emotional experience. I really did love it from the start. You and John both told me that I would most certainly identify with Scout, and you were completely right. I could almost picture my 7 year old self in her place (though, unlike Scout, I was the bossy older sibling in my situation). Atticus Finch is as wonderful as everyone has always said he is, and I honestly can't decide between him and Scout as to which is my favorite character. Finishing the book left me in tears, and I'm not even entirely sure I could say why except that it was a beautiful ending to a beautiful book. I can see now why so many people's jaws hit the floor when they heard I'd never read it.

Michelle, you have a longer history with this novel than I do, so I'd imagine that you have a lot more to say about it since you've had quite a bit more time to chew on the text and its ideas than I have. I'm still in the raving fangirl stage - have you been able to move past this stage or is it not really one you ever leave as far as this book is concerned?

M: I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in middle school. I loved it at the time; I even gave a copy to my Dad (who is not a reader) and asked him to read it because Atticus was such a wonderful father and in many ways reminded me of him. I've never quite had the relationship with my father that Atticus and Scout have, but the way Atticus tries to explain the world to Scout is very much they way my Dad has worked to explain things to me (and sometimes those explanations went straight over my head, just as they do for Scout). I spent a while in that fangirl stage you mention.

However as the distance between me and my reading of the novel grew, the way I looked at it changed. I started to resent the hype. Yeah, I'd loved the novel as a kid but that love probably wouldn't survive a rereading so instead of suffering another Dracula situation (do not read Dracula again as an adult if you have fond memories from your childhood reading - you will be sorely disappointed!) I just decided to leave the novel on the shelf. Then last year I read a biography of Harper Lee with my book club. So much of Harper Lee's story went into the story of To Kill a Mockingbird that I decided I should pick it up again. What surprised me most was that I did not feel differently about the novel. I loved it with with unabashed abandon, but I was struck by entirely different elements. My adolescent reading was all Atticus and the importance of doing the right thing. As an adult I read the novel with a consciousness of feminism and race; reflecting on the things that have and have not changed. Both are valid readings of the novel, and I really think that we could have a wider conversation about TKAM and it's place in young adult literature, but for now I want to hear more of your thoughts.

V: Oh I definitely think it fits into the category of young adult literature, and I think it's definitely the kind of book that would be great to read as you did, several times growing up, because of its potential to change with the reader. I'm looking forward to reading it again in the future to see how my reading changes from reading in early adulthood to other points in my life. You mentioned the feminism and race issues present in the book, and those were the ones that, reading for the first time as an adult, particularly struck me. The feminism is what connected with me, though, as I was a tomboy very much like Scout when I was a kid. I never wore dresses or skirts, and dressing up was uncomfortable and to be avoided at all costs. Though no one ever tried to force me into being "ladylike," for the most part, I did have trouble growing up trying to figure out how to be myself within a context of femininity, something we don't necessarily see Scout dealing with just yet but something which I have no doubt she will have to deal with as she grows a bit older.

One criticism that I had of the book - perhaps because the race aspect was the main thing I'd heard about it before reading it - is that I thought the court case and Tom Robinson's fate was a bit rushed in the end and kind of shunted to the side. That might have had more to do with the fact that Scout was the protagonist than anything, since I think Jem being the protagonist would have meant that Tom Robinson and his plight would have gotten a lot more consideration after the fact. But I kind of wanted more thought and consideration of what was going on in this case and the implications and how it affected the black community in and around Maycomb...but that just wasn't really there. Perhaps that would be asking too much of the book, but it was something that bothered me just a bit as I reached the ending. I might also have felt that way because that aspect of the book reminded me quite a bit of John Grisham's A Time to Kill, in which the court case and its racial implications were central to the story. I thought that would be the case here as well, and I was surprised to find that it wasn't. What are your thoughts on that?

M: The largest criticism I have of the book has more to do with people's perception of it than the book itself. To Kill a Mockingbird has been called "the most widely read book on race" and honestly a book that is a white narrative about white characters written by a white person that deals with elements of racism is not a "book on race." I don't want to take away from Harper Lee's critique of Southern culture and the systemic racism that she was genuinely writing about; however, the novel is more about innocence (and the loss thereof) than it is about race. So yes, there is much we don't see about the court case and the story of the black characters in the novel is very limited, but this is Scout's story and it succeeds wildly as her story. Where if fails is in the perception of it as story of "race" which a reading of the text rather than the consciousness surrounding it will show that it is not intended to be.

The thing that makes To Kill a Mockingbird work is the narration. The novel is told by an adult Jean Louise narrating the story of a child Scout. This allows it to be absolutely idealistic and yet caustic in its views of the American South. In that way, the major theme of racism shows itself through Scout's perceptions of the activities surrounding her, but ultimately it is a novel of innocence and empathy and Lee sets those themes with aplomb.

I wanted to talk a bit about how beloved the novel is. I know people who read it every year. That's a level of devotion I find it difficult to fathom as I'm not much of a rereader to begin with. The thing with this novel though is the humor. I think I genuinely could revel in Harper Lee's wit with a yearly rereading. I mentioned feminism earlier and to an extent I was referring to the many admonishments Scout received to be more of a lady, but on a grander scale there are many asides that make clear Harper Lee's ideas about perceptions of gender and womanhood. One of my favorite lines in the novel comes when Scout and Jem accompany Cal to church and Scout finds that "again, as I had often met it in my own church, I was confronted with the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergymen." That line is perfectly delivered and says a lot about the woman Scout grew up to be. This is one of the areas in which I find it difficult to separate Scout and Harper Lee - I can just imagine Lee at a party in New York, a quiet and unassuming looking woman who comes out with lines such as this. You can see why she was a popular dinner guest. 

V: Yes, I definitely can understand that! I wouldn't mind having dinner with her, myself! Overall I'd have to say that To Kill a Mockingbird has definitely earned itself a place on my favorites shelf; because I loved this one so much, I'm actually a bit nervous to start Go Set a Watchman. I know John loved it, but I'm worried it's not going to feel right, especially reading them both for the first time back to back. But I'll save my thoughts on that for our next discussion!

We've made it through Harper Lee's fantastic first novel, and now we've started on Harper Lee's second (or perhaps her real first? As if was written pre-Mockingbird?) novel, Go Set a Watchman, the book everyone has been talking about! We're very excited to read this novel and join the conversation surrounding this literary event!

Also, don't forget to join us for a meetup and discussion of all our Summer of Southern Women books, with a particular emphasis on Go Set a Watchman, on August 9th at 2 PM! We're dying to talk about these books to other readers in the community, and we hope to see you there!

Go Set a Watchman: A Novel By Harper Lee Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062409850
Availability: Backordered
Published: Harper - July 14th, 2015

#1 New York Times Bestseller

Go Set a Watchman is such an important book, perhaps the most important novel on race to come out of the white South in decades…
   — New York Times (Opinion Pages)