Okay, I have said this joke before, but I simply cannot begin a commentary on this book without this picture:
If anything, that cat is just so gorgeous.
Anyway, enough of the memes because I probably should say a few things about this book. First of all why only an 8 out of 10? Well, it is a great book, is incredibly well written, and it deals with issues that go to the heart of race relations, but there was something about this book that didn't make my want to cry out 'this is absolutely brilliant!'. One that was that the ending felt a little dragged out, and alos there seemed to be an awful lot of filler especially since the trial of poor Tom Robinson was the focus of the story. In fact it wasn't until someway into part two that the trial began, and even then it didn't seem to last all that long. For a while I was even wondering if I was reading the correct book because it felt as if my friend had got a completely different book and swapped covers. However, since Atticus Finch is the major character, and my knowledge that he is the major character in this book did settle my nerves a little.
On the subject of Atticus Finch I have to say that he is painted as a very noble and honourable character. No doubt he was modelled on the author's father (in fact the book is quite semi-autobiographical), however Atticus certainly stands up as an example of how the legal profession, despite all of its detractors, is very much an honourable one. This was a little odd because for some reason I had always thought that Atticus was a less than noble character, and when I actually got around to reading this book I suddenly discovered that the Atticus that I thought I knew was not the Atticus that literally dominates the pages of this book.
Even though the story is told from the point of view of Atticus' daughter (which no doubt is the author's alter-ego) Atticus is the character that the entire story focuses around. It is his actions, his beliefs, and the lessons that he teaches his children that we are left thinking about, and also how as a lawyer he is honest and just, not willing to bend the law when it suits him, but to rather stand up for equality and justice, no matter who is before the court. He is a man that has no prejudice, and is appalled by the prejudice he sees in others. The fact that he chids his daughter for using racial slurs goes to show how he is a person who does not follow the crowd with their prejudices and their hatreds. However, he also goes to point out that despite injustices being committed, he does know that there are others in the town that hold his views, and while they may not accept the beliefs of those around them, they have only limited powers to sway the perceptions of the people.
The one thing that this book explores, and challenges us, is the whole concept of race relations. How is it that an innocent Negro can be condemned to death on the testimony of a witness who is dubious at best and in normal circumstances does not hold the respect of the society. In the South of the 1930s it seems that even the trailer trash of the era had more respect in the community than the average African-American. In many cases, despite slavery being abolished, they were still treated as animals and as second class citizens. In a way it is like the dog that escapes and bites somebody. Like the dog, who cannot rely on the defence of provocation, the African-American was guilty before any of the evidence has been presented, and even then the whole court room drama is little more than that – a performance where the audience already knows what the outcome is going to be and the only reason that a trial is held is to make it appear that justice is being done. It does not matter whether the accused has the best lawyer that money can buy, there is no way that they will be able to escape the penalty that had been determined the minute the charges were laid – even if those charges were false.
Another thing is the loss of innocence. At the beginning we have little Scout and Jem, children playing in an ideal world in rural America. In many ways this town, and the county, is painted as being the traditional American town. However as the book progresses the innocence of the ideal place slowly begins to reveal some dark secrets. It is not so much Boo Radley, the man who seems to be forever shut inside his house, but rather as we come to learn about the trailer-trash that live down by the dump, and the way the African-Americans are treated as being less than second class citizens. It reminds me of how we have grown up being taught about a thing called race, and how, for some reason, by having a different colour of skin makes one, for some reason, different. In a way there are differences, and when one travels one begins to see differences in the cultural norms, and as people begin in immigrate into our countries we also begin to see different attitudes and different belief systems. This is what turns out to be a problem: while we may move elsewhere, we tend to want to take our belief systems and our customs and impose it on the culture where we are now living.
Yet this is not so much the case between the black and white Americans. Both groups are American, both are Christian, and both, in many cases, speak English. There is little to no difference between them culturally except for the colour of their skin. Mind you, this is not something that I have experienced here in Australia because what we have here is multi-culturalism. Australia never brought slaves over to create anything akin to the African-American population. In many cases people from other lands come over here with their own cultures and their own beliefs, and this is generally where the conflicts begin to arise. At first it was with the Southern Europeans, then it was with the Asians, and these days it is with those coming over from the Middle East.
In another way little seems to have changed between the days of Harper Lee's childhood and today. Sure, we have a black president, and there is more ability for African-Americans to be able to get a good job and earn a decent wage, yet in many cases there is still a disconnect between white and black America. A black child going to a prep-school could easily be the only black student on the entire campus, and can still be the target of bullying and ostracism. The Negro population in the American prison system vastly outstrips that of other races, and many of them still live in poverty and in ghettos. Even now we find them being forced out of their traditional homes, such as Harlem in New York, which is experiencing a rapid period of gentrification. This is similar with what is happening in inner city Australia. Redfern in Inner Sydney once had a large Aboriginal population, and was seen by the indigenous community as having a spiritual significance. However their homes have since been bulldozed as the prices began to sour, and these days I doubt you would see any Aboriginal living in the area.
As for this book, this certainly does capture you and challenge you with the prejudices, and injustices, that are faced by minorities even in our advanced democracies. Despite our legal system appearing to be fair and equitable, in communities where prejudices run deep, even the best legal system will fail.