To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) 285 p.

It’s always nice to read a classic, revered work of literature and find that you agree with the consensus. To Kill A Mockingbird is a fantastic piece of writing, and its message is nearly as important today as it was when written.

I knew the book followed a white lawyer representing a black man in a racist Southern town; what I didn’t know was that it’s narrated by the lawyer’s young daughter. Scout Finch is as naive as you’d expect a six or seven year-old girl to be, but she’s intelligent. She asks questions that challenge the 1930’s status quo, making people re-examine their fundamental beliefs in the way that only a child’s honest question can. Her father Atticus Finch – who is clearly, even from the very opening pages, a Great Man – does his best to raise her and her brother Jem in the absence of their mother, to conduct himself well as a father, a person and a lawyer, and to teach her about the world as best he can.

The novel could have been quite depressing. It’s about a black man accused of rape on circumstantial evidence, an innocent man who suffers greatly because of the prejudices and stupidity of the white community. Yet there’s a warmth to the book, a great sense of kindness, a call to be fair and courageous and a good human being. Atticus Finch may have gained fame for his personification of Justice, for his selfless defence of an innocent black man, but I found his most beautiful and touching character trait to be his determination to instill these values in his children.

Lee tells her story simply. There’s no great visual language or metaphor or particular skill with prose. This creates an appropriate comfortable sense to the book, as though it’s being related by the fireplace in that homely Southern house. And behind the seemingly simple words are an ocean’s worth of symbolism and thematic depth. This is not just a book about racism; it’s about prejudice in general, about how ignorant and bigoted humans can be, and for that it has a timeless resonance. I read A Passage To India last year, about an Indian man unjustly accused of raping a British woman in the 1920’s, and I didn’t review it – partly because I read a lot of books while camping and didn’t want to face a stack of reviews upon return, and partly because I wasn’t sure how to approach it. It’s a great novel, but it rests largely upon its social commentary about the disparity of the British and the Indians, a disparity that history resolved more than sixty years ago.

Has America’s racial problem been solved since 1960? Many people said, following Obama’s election, that the US had moved “beyond race.” The outpouring of xenophobia and hatred towards Obama (slotting in neatly with American Islamophobia, despite the fact that he’s not Muslim) promptly exposed that as wishful thinking. Things may be better than in 1960, but the US is a long way from perfect racial harmony.

Even if it were, To Kill A Mockingbird would still be an important book, not just for historical reasons but because of prejudice and ignorance in general. I noted that several times throughout the book, Atticus tells Scout that you should never judge somebody until you’ve walked in their shoes or put yourself in their skin – you may not agree with them, or like what they’re doing, but it’s vital to try to understand their motives. Even if America was a racial paradise, I’m sure the government would still be peddling the notion that Islamic terrorists attack the US simply because “they hate us.”

Courage, compassion, respect, honour, dignity, honesty, integrity and love in less than 300 pages. What a great book.

To Kill A Mockingbird at The Book Depository