TERRE HAUTE —
Perspective means everything.
Two people can view the same event and retell the story so differently. One may see normalcy; the other, hurt.
This week, the classic novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” marks its 50th anniversary. Since Harper Lee wrote the story of tolerance and social justice in 1960, nearly 40 million copies have sold. It’s never gone out of print. It’s been translated into 50 different languages. In 1999, a survey by the Library Journal ranked it the best novel of the 20th century; a poll of Vigo County Public Library patrons that same year agreed.
The book still ranks No. 1 on summer reading lists for high school students. Last week, almost every copy of the Pulitzer Prize winner, and videos of the 1962 film based on the book, were checked out at the Vigo County library’s main branch.
“That’s always an indicator that it remains a popular book, even after 50 years,” said Nancy Dowell, the library’s executive director.
The lasting popularity of Lee’s novel has many reasons, including “the beauty of its clear prose,” said Andrew H. Miller, professor of English at Indiana University, as well as “its direct address of enduring moral issues; and its humorous, ironic use of a child’s perspective to frame and cut through adult moral issues.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is told through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl, Scout Finch. She lives in the fictional Alabama town of Maycomb in 1936 with her older brother, Jem, and their middle-aged father, Atticus, a widower lawyer. When Atticus is appointed to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who is wrongly accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell, Maycomb turns on the Finches. Facing seething taunts and threats born of deep-rooted prejudice, Scout stands up and fights for her dad, who risks his own life to do the same for his client. The children — Scout, Jem and their friend Dill — watch in confusion and disillusionment as a jury of white men declares Tom guilty, even after Atticus proves his innocence in court. Later, Tom dies, trying to escape the Maycomb jail.
“It ain’t right, Atticus,” Jem says after the verdict.
“No, son, it’s not right,” Atticus answers.
A boy, baffled, felt the outrage. The adult, who knew the reality of 1930s racism, felt resignation.
The book’s childlike point-of-view forces grown-ups to answer for the absurd injustices they’ve perpetuated and institutionalized. That perspective might change perceptions of other situations — what if a child in New Orleans told the story of Hurricane Katrina, or a youngster in a Haiti narrated the saga of the January earthquake? A child living in a war zone might struggle to understand rationalizations for the conflict.
“Mockingbird” questions biases of race, social status, religion and gender, without neat resolutions. When Scout asks Atticus why a client repays him with goods instead of money, Atticus explains to his daughter that the man has no money. “Is he poor?” she asks. “Yes,” Atticus answers. After a pause, she asks, “Are we poor?” His answer: “We are indeed,” but not as poor as a nearby farm family.
Until that moment, this girl had no idea she was — in the eyes of others — poor.
With “To Kill a Mockingbird,” young readers are forced to take stock of our human-made social stations. It fits powerfully in school reading lists.
“It is, in its way, a perfect book,” Miller explained, “and this makes it extremely teachable: timely ethical and aesthetic issues are raised cleanly but not answered, so they are immediately ready for satisfying classroom discussion.”
The book contains examples of courage, in some unsuspecting places. Of course, Atticus bravely repels the lynch-mob atmosphere as he defends Tom. There is also the imperfect neighbor woman, Mrs. Dubose, who is addicted to morphine. The white woman blurts out bitter, racial insults about Atticus’ defense of Tom to Scout and Jem, and the children fear and despise her wrath. They are initially unaware of her addiction, but Atticus knows. Yet he continues to warmly greet Mrs. Dubose with genteel Southern charm, which amazes his daughter.
“It was times like these,” Scout says, “when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man in the world.”
Angered by Mrs. Dubose’s racist insults of Atticus, Jem cuts the tops off her flowers. Jem’s punishment is to read to the woman daily. Later, he learns his readings helped cure her addiction.
And then there is Boo Radley, a recluse in a deteriorating house whose mysterious reputation fascinates the kids. They fear Boo, too. In the end, though, he saves their lives from the vengeful, drunkard father of Tom Robinson’s accuser, Mayella Ewell. Atticus’ defense of Tom unwittingly humiliated Mayella’s dysfunctional father in the courtroom, and he vowed revenge. Boo emerges from the shadows, stops Bob Ewell’s assault on Jem and Scout, and stabs the angry man to death.
The sheriff decides Ewell fell on his own knife. Boo, the unlikely hero, will not face trial.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” does not neatly right all of the wrongs. Yet its clear presentation of ambiguous moral issues makes the book ideal to teach, Miller said. Other classics, such as Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” broach similar themes but with more rough edges exposed.
“But it’s important to remember that perfection and teachability aren’t everything,” Miller said. “‘Huck Finn’ is a much greater book — but also a messier, less perfect book, and therefore more difficult to teach.”
The setting and characters in “Mockingbird” seem to be Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala. The young narrator, Scout, appears to be Lee in her own childhood. The writer lives in Monroeville, enigmatically. She’s never written another book. In 50 years, she’s rarely discussed it or even mentioned its title publicly. In a brief, updated, 1993 foreword to the novel, Lee reiterated her distaste for introductions in books, and added, “‘Mockingbird’ still says what it has to say.”
And millions are still hearing it.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or email@example.com.
MARK BENNETT: A child’s view of prejudice keeps ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ relevant a half-century later
TERRE HAUTE —
Perspective means everything.
RONN MOTT: Why Syria?
Russia is making a lot of noise in favor of Syria. They are supplying Assad’s army with more armaments and basic things such as ammunition and such.
LIZ CIANCONE: Another beloved dog goes to heaven
We are short one granddog. This past week, “Indy” could no longer use her back legs and she went to that great dog kennel in the hereafter.
READERS’ FORUM: June 18, 2013
• Beware those who follow Ayn Rand
• Poor excuse for gas price hikes
MAX JONES: For loyal readers, a bit of news from the T-S newsroom
As journalists toiling to create a content-rich, relevant and compelling community newspaper each day, we feel a special bond with our legions of readers across the Wabash Valley and beyond.
GUEST COLUMN: One Million Bones exhibit meant to raise awareness, inspire action to end genocide
The National Mall: A grassy corridor in Washington, D.C., lined with America’s greatest museums and monuments.
Ending at the U.S. Capitol building, it is a symbol of our belief in the power and greatness of America. Last weekend, we turned it into a mass grave.
EDITORIAL: Insisting on ISTEP quality lawmakers’ primary duty
Now that everyone, on both sides of the aisle, seems backslappingly happy to agree that this spring’s ISTEP school testing debacle was unacceptable, that at least some of the results lack credibility and that the issue carries high-stakes significance, what next?
The Obama Debate: Is he a liar or incompetent?
I read the letters on the opinion page daily and I find an unusual silence from your liberal progressive contributors lately. Could it be because they don’t have anything to expound upon? Well, maybe I can give them some material.
A Fathers Day Tribute: Transition — from child to father
Transition seems like a big word to use as his story unfolds. Transition was probably never used in conjunction with speech, his speech, but it demonstrates his life, as it does in many lives lived in his generation.
READERS' FORUM: June 16, 2013
Horrible crime cries out for stern justice
Confused about groups’ merger
Global warming fraud exposed
The Obama Debate: President has served us well
I have not heard a positive thing by those in this area about this president since his 2008 election and 2009 inauguration. Why this manifestation, I just can’t understand.
RONN MOTT: Not hurried a bit by 21st century tech
Unlike so many of you, I do not get up in the morning and run to turn on my computer. In fact, if you need to reach me in a hurry, I would say that 19th century invention of Alexander Bell’s would be the best way. If you do email me or use some other electronic convenience, better give it a couple of days because I am not in that big of a hurry.
READERS' FORUM: June 15, 2013
America needs another hero
EDITORIAL: And now we wait for justice
It is a word we would rather never have on our front page — homicide. That we had to use it twice on Wednesday’s front page is sad, but unavoidable.
READERS' FORUM: June 14, 2013
Mott statements contradict history
Display the flag
RONN MOTT: Kill the Umpire!
I don’t know who appointed Major League Baseball’s umpires “Gods,” but if they have been appointed “Gods,” they have appointed people who cannot see or think very well.
READERS' FORUM: June 13, 2013
Bad odor from gas prices
Build personal library
Morning after? No worries
EDITORIAL: Remembering Sister Jeanne
Terre Haute is mourning the loss this week of an accomplished and beloved community activist and leader whose life’s work is an inspiration to all who strive to serve.
EDITORIAL: Embrace the value of traffic planning
Never underestimate the value of a good plan to deal with a crisis, large or small, even if the final analysis of the management of a specific crisis is, “It could have been worse.”
READERS' FORUM: June 12, 2013
Like it or not, change coming
RONN MOTT: What’s happening?
I know I may have looked at these situations differently when I was in my twenties. The world, my life, my career, and the growth of my family all lay ahead of me. So perhaps now, many years later, I see it differently.
READERS’ FORUM: June 11, 2013
• Great support for local cause
• Another idea on housing issue
LIZ CIANCONE: Withdrawn society not very social any more
My Best Friend and I went out for lunch the other day. It was a sit-down place with our own “server” (in my day I was called “a waitress”) and everything offering personal attention. The manager even came over to ask if everything was all right.
READERS’ FORUM: June 10, 2013
• What is the cost of our austerity?
• Vintage campers to gather at rally
• Seek a healthy food alternative
EDITORIAL: It’s time to assess ISTEP
Later this month, the company behind this spring’s abysmal online administration of ISTEP testing for 27,000 Hoosier schoolchildren is being called to the principal’s office.
Readers’ Forum: June 9, 2013
• Taking time to help the world
• Reform by politics will not improve education
• Questions from a wondering mind
FLASHPOINT: Storm chasers must heed warnings, remember why we chase storms
The tragic death of noted weather researcher and former Discovery Channel storm chaser Tim Samaras has shaken all of us in the meteorological community.
Will you be happy if you win the lottery?
A Psychology Today article titled “What Will You Do if You Win the $550 Million Powerball Lottery?” caught my attention. Helping lottery winners with their money is my long-time gig.
- RONN MOTT: The ‘wilds’ of Collett Park
EDITORIAL: Fix fraud, don’t punish needy
Waste and fraud in government programs should be rooted out vigilantly. Legislation should fix a problem with a fitting solution, not punish the needy.
READERS' FORUM: June 7, 2013
Thanks to those who helped VYFL
- More Opinion Headlines
- RONN MOTT: Why Syria?