It hardly seems like 50 years since I picked up this book late one rainy night when it was first published, after my mom had been raving about the book for weeks, trying to get me to read it. Well, what the heck, the late movie was boring that evening and there was nothing else on the TV... next thing I knew, it was two o'clock in the morning and I had just turned the final page on what was the most magical reading experience of my entire life.
From the opening line, "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow..." Lee hooks the reader with a deceptively simple story of a Southern family and a Southern town caught up in a cataclysmic moral crisis, and keeps us enthralled till the very last word. Lee's writing style is that of the storyteller who mesmerizes her audience telling a tale so simple, yet so compelling, that you never want it to end. Her narrator is Scout Finch, a delightfully devilish little tomboy who sees her world through the all-observant eyes of childhood. Scout is one of the most enchanting characters in modern American fiction. She's bright, funny, totally real; there's nothing contrived about her. She's someone we all knew in first or second grade, or wished we'd known. Scout lives with her brother Jem, four years her senior, her lawyer father Atticus, and their housekeeper Calpurnia, in a sleepy Alabama town where everybody knows or is related to everybody else. Lee spends the first half of the book drawing us into the life of the town and the Finch family, Scout's hilarious and problematic adjustment to first grade, and brings us into the mystery surrounding the notorious-yet-never-seen Boo Radley. The second half of the book is about the moral crisis that tears the town apart.
Lee has a way of saying a lot by saying very little, and her laconic statement that the people of Maycomb had recently been told they had nothing to fear but fear itself sets the time squarely in 1933, the depths of the Great Depression. Times were bad for most people in small Southern towns; they were especially bad for poor whites and all blacks. In 1933 the South was rigidly segregated down every possible line, and a white woman's false accusation of rape was enough to get a black man hanged. When Mayella Ewell accuses Tom Robinson of rape, in the eyes of most of the white populace, Tom has been tried, convicted and is awaiting execution. Judge Taylor disagrees, and asks Atticus to take Tom's case.
In Atticus Finch, Lee created what would eventually grow to be the best-loved character in all American fiction. Atticus is a loving but not a doting father, an able lawyer, and an individual of towering integrity. He takes Tom's case because he knows Mayella's accusation is full of holes, and he believes Tom is as deserving of good legal representation as anyone else. Atticus knows better than anyone else how his decision to take the case will affect his children, but as he explains to Scout, who wonders how Atticus can be right if everybody else thinks he's wrong, if he didn't take the case, he could never hold his head up in front of his children again.
Atticus knows he's fighting a losing battle, but deep inside himself he believes he may lose a battle but win a bigger war. The chapters describing Tom Robinson's trial and Atticus's defense are some of the most powerful in American fiction. On of the most moving passages in the book is at the end of the trial when the town's black minister tells Scout to "Stand up. Your father's passin'."
Along with Scout and Atticus Finch, Lee created a host of other memorable characters. Jem is the perfect big brother for Scout, sometimes protective, sometimes antagonistic, always encouraging. Lee only needs to pen a few details about Calpurnia to bring her vividly to life: "She was all angles and bones; she squinted; her hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard." Calpurnia isn't the stereotypical Mammy of Tara; she's a no-nonsense maid and housekeeper who dishes out ample amounts of love and old-fashioned discipline in equal doses. And Miss Maudie Atkinson is a delightful creation; funny, ditzy, and wise all at once. Anyone would want her for their next-door neighbor.
The two major villains, Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella, are compelling characters in their own right. Bob Ewell is quintessential white trash, spending the family's relief money on moonshine while his children go hungry. But poor Mayella is as much victim as villain; we can't help but feel for her, ostracized and isolated, knowing only her father's physical violence and sexual abuse; her attempted seduction of Tom Robinson is a desperate cry for love and affection. But, as Lee reminds us, it's all for naught. Tom Robinson was dead the minute Mayella, caught in the act of attempted seduction by her father, opened her mouth and screamed.
After the highlight of the trial, the book might have slid into anticlimax, but it's Lee's genius that she keeps the tension heightened after the trial and its denouement, through Ewell's drunken, insane attack on Atticus through his children, and their rescue by Boo Radley. And after everything she, her family, and the town have been through, what has Scout learned from all this? Pretty much what Atticus set out to teach her all along: that you can't get to know a person until you put on his shoes and walk around in them.