The publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman has inevitably shone a spotlight on To Kill A Mockingbird, and in the glare of present-day sensibilities, both novels are criticised for their portrayal of attitudes to race, justice, equality.
Mockingbird’s lack of real radicalism and its blinkered, sanitised view of society is highlighted by the perspective presented by the later publication as the grown-up Scout discovers her father was not the champion of civil rights she had thought him to be.
For many of us, however, nuanced discussions of ideology are eclipsed by visceral cries of outrage at Watchman’s treatment of our favourite characters.
It’s not only Scout who feels betrayed when her wise, tolerant, humane father, whose secure presence gives a feelgood vibe to Mockingbird’s ending, is next seen as a 72-year old arthritic segregationist (although to be fair, he can’t be blamed for two of those conditions).
And Jem is just killed off! Jem, whose growing awareness of man’s inhumanity to man is movingly shown as he weeps when he realizes that Boo Radley’s father has blocked up the tree hole in which Boo used to leave gifts for the children. He is only 13 when Mockingbird ends — he could have turned out to be an OK guy, maybe.
There’s no Dill either, but we know he grew up to be Truman Capote anyway.
It would be a shame if the myriad pleasures of Mockingbird are eclipsed by revisionist readings. The structure is spot on — have a look at the first line of the novel, which refers to Jem’s broken arm, and remember the thrill of recognition when we later discover how the arm was broken.
Harper Lee’s depiction of life in Maycomb, a small Southern town, in the 1930s is thickly clustered with detail about family, religion, education, economics, and enlivened by quirky, vividly realized characters.
Passages we may find redundant on a first reading, when the plot sweeps us along, repay a closer look for the historical and cultural insight they give.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an adult book which is widely read by young people. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor will be found in the children’s or young adult section of libraries and bookstores, but it deserves an adult audience.
Published in 1976, it tells the story of the Logans, a farming family in 1930s Mississippi. Whereas events in Mockingbird are seen through the perspective of a young white girl, this story is told through the eyes of 10-year-old Cassie, whose descriptions of being a black person in the South hit home with directness and ferocity.
For a so-called young person’s book (winner of the 1977 Newbery Medal for children’s literature) it packs an uncompromising punch. Black people are set on fire, lynched, tarred and feathered. The ‘night men’, a white supremacist group which sounds like the KKK, spread terror, burning homes and murdering the occupants.
As opposed to the somewhat twee descriptions of the education system in Maycomb, Roll of Thunder shows us the Logan kids and their friends trudging miles to school, for some a journey so arduous they drop out of education, unlike the white children who are bussed to the all-white high school where the state flag with its confederate symbol flies high above the American flag.
At school, the black kids are given old and dirty books which are rejects from the county school and which contain users’ labels listing the condition of the book next to the owners’ ethnicity.
But step up Mama Logan! She, a schoolteacher, and the other Logan women, are heroic fighters for justice and civil rights. She covers up the label where ‘very poor’ is next to ‘nigra’; she refuses to stick to the official line about the history of slavery; she organises a boycott of the white-owned store whose owners burned a black man to death.
But the Logans have to work within the system, and they teach their children the importance of navigating a route through the prejudice and racism while keeping your personal dignity. If you have to, you can mouth respectful words without feeling respect. You should do what’s right without sacrificing your personal safety, although sacrifices are inevitable, as seen by Mama Logan’s dismissal by the school board.
Instead of the Finches’ fey and frail friend Dill, we have TJ, the kid who hangs out with the Logans. He is weak, easily led, a liar and a cheat, who foolishly believes that being friends with the older white boys will bring him status. There is no heart-warming moment when he realizes the error of his ways. Inevitably he is set up for a crime, and at the end of the book he faces a chain gang or hanging.
The Harper Lee novels provide the comfort and reassurance of a soothing hot drink with perhaps something by Snow Patrol playing in the background.
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is a slug of whisky while Billie Holiday sings Strange Fruit. It’s painful and unforgettable.
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