Reading Club: To Kill a Mockingbird
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
I started reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee how I often start books these days. I had just finished re-re-reading the Harry Potter book series and a very long Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders, and I was looking for inspiration to continue my reading journey on social issues in North America. I browsed the Internet and looked around for suggestions on a wide range of topics, but mostly around social justice, racial issues and other you-need-to-read-before-you-die themes. I started using this method to pick out books during my postgraduate studies in London, and I haven’t lost the habit since. Despite being originally sceptical of these “20 books you must not miss” lists, I have had some excellent (and less so) reads. Furthermore, I feel like this technique allows me to explore a wide range of topics, authors and genres that I would not necessary explore if I merely ask my relatives and close friends.
To Kill a Mockingbird is probably a book every American children has read or heard of, alongside The Catcher in the Rye and the likes. As a European-grown, I was not at all familiar with the book. I remember being attracted by the title, and I knew it had to do with race, somehow, but that was it. Thus, I believe a little bit of context is necessary for my fellow non-English European citizens: To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee published in 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize and has become a classic of modern American literature. The plot revolves around an event that occurred in a small town of Alabama, in 1936. The story is told by the six-year-old Jean Louise Finch.
To Kill a Mockingbird was not an immediate success with me. I had to go through a good 35-40 percent of the book before really getting into the story. One of the reasons behind it might have been that I knew nothing about the book in general, and as such I struggle to understand what the hell it was all about. I was following a young child’s life in 1936 Alabama. Let me tell you, it did not resonate much with me. The depiction of an American life at that time seemed very foreign to me and the slang used did not ease my reading comprehension. I was slower than usual in my reading, and after my partner told me that the book was not known to be especially entertaining, I put reading it on hold.
I came back to it a month or so after, determined to finish it regardless of whether I liked it or not. And man, I am glad I did. The ingenuity of To Kill a Mockingbird is the ease with which the author unfolds a very serious story of rape and racial inequality through the eyes of a child. The innocence of Jean-Louise allows the reader to appreciate the qualities and flaws of all characters without the judgmental bias that every adult acquires with age. The book was for me an amazing insight into the human right violations faced by African American in the twentieth century, but also into the vital importance of the rule of law and of the judicial system in protecting citizens’ rights regardless of colour, gender and social status.
Why would I suggest To Kill a Mockingbird to my European fellows?
First of all, because it gives you a very interesting insight into the life of poor southern U.S. American citizens in the mid-thirties. To imagine that people would live this way not even a hundred years ago, and in a country that was at that time shielded from the rise of Nazism, was fascinating to me. My own maternal grandmother would have been 13 when the book opens, so I tried and compared what I was reading to what I knew of her life at the time. It was different for sure, but similar as well.
Second, because I think it gives an amazing example of what life meant for coloured folks at the time. Slavery was officially abolished in December 1865 by the adoption of the 13th amendment. The events in the book are taking place in 1936, which means that slavery has been abolished for over 70 years… 70 years! World War II was concluded over 70 years ago, and I can tell you that in Western European countries, it does seem like a very long time ago. To think that so little had changed with regard to attitudes towards black people, if not a massive surprise, was still highly disturbing. Call me naïve, and maybe I am. I think Europeans often fail to grasp the impact that slavery had on American society, and that’s one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place.
To Kill a Mockingbird made me think a lot about the attitude of European citizens towards minorities. Slavery and segregation have deeply impacted the identity of African Americans. I wondered - and still am - which impact colonization has had on the identity of minorities in Europe today, and whether you could compare the two. Something to keep thinking about...