My first exposure to Harper Lee's classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, was when I read it for fun by myself in the fifth grade. What I didn't realize during my first reading of it, was that I would have to read it again and again. Like for pretty much everyone else, it was a part of my curriculum at school, so I had to revisit Maycomb in the sixth and ninth grades as well. Each rereading of this novel, though, brought new insights, and diving deeper into Scout's world was always a pleasure.
This week I've been rereading To Kill A Mockingbird for a fourth time. It's been about eight years since I last read the book. My curiosities were peaked again because of the upcoming release of Harper Lee's upcoming new novel, Go Set A Watchman. We're so close to that book coming out, and I want to have these characters fresh in my head when I enter the next chapter of their story.
In a 2010 article about the book, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote:
Sometimes novels are considered "important" in the way medicine is -- they taste terrible and are difficult to get down your throat, but are good for you. The best novels are those that are important without being like medicine; they have something to say, are expansive and intelligent but never forget to be entertaining and to have character and emotion at their centre. Harper Lee's triumph is one of those.
This book certainly is entertaining. I've always been charmed by the image of Scout, Jem and Dill reenacting scenes from Dracula in the backyard, or their wild fantasies about Boo Radley. The children of this novel are innocent, but their sharp intelligence makes them so fascinating. Besides just being entertaining, however, this book is, as Adiche put it -- "important." Lee's novel is how children all across America have come to confront some of society's darkest institutions -- white privilege, systemic racism, and rampant inequality.
Though many would argue that we live in a post-racial society where racism no longer exists, this is still an issue we grapple with today. For instance, recently a fight at a pool party in McKinney, Texas led to a horrific scene of police brutality. Shortly after that, a shooting at a South Carolina church that claimed nine black people's lives reignited a national conversation about race. The prejudice of the past doesn't seem like such a distant memory.
The injustice that explodes in the second part of To Kill A Mockingbird, where Tom Robinson is convicted despite the overwhelming evidence he didn't rape Mayella Ewell, is an example of the kind of unfairness our country still grapples with daily. That's the wonderful thing about this book being so ingrained in the public zeitgeist -- it's a story almost all of us are familiar with. Reading this novel is like taking race relations 101, and it's an excellent starting point for these complex conversations. The problem is that maybe too many people slept through high school English.
When I read Lee's next novel, I'm excited to see how Scout grows as an adult. If her tenacity and spunk are still as fierce, I'm sure I won't be disappointed. Until then, I'm enjoying reentering the world Lee created which isn't so different from our own. While celebrating the progress and triumphs we've made since 1960 when this book came out seems like the natural thing to do, To Kill A Mockingbird reflects certain facets of our reality back at us. We still have so far to go.