Unlike most wines, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird is best tasted young.
The news that a newly discovered Mockingbird ‘sequel’ — Go Set A Watchman — is going to be published means it could be a good time to refresh your memory of the original or perhaps read it for the first time.
But when you come to read To Kill A Mockingbird as an adolescent or teenager, its heady mix of domestic drama, small town life, growing up, racial prejudice, social injustice, humour and pathos knocks you off your feet.
And when you are unfamiliar with the background to life in 1930s’ Alabama, references such as those to the civil war (referred to as the disturbance between the North and the South), religious services at the First Purchase African church (so called because it was paid for from the first earnings of freed slaves), the respectable newspaper Mobile Press and the downmarket Grit Paper, people called Crazy Addie and Dolphus Raymond, touch-football matches between the Methodists and the Baptists give you a fascinating flavour of a different era and a different way of life.
When you read the book later, I find some of the emotional response is diluted. You notice the ways in which our sympathies are directed. You notice the lack of complexity. You know Dill is based on Truman Capote. You might find sentimentality where before you found profundity. And that’s a real shame.
The best way to read To Kill A Mockingbird is to surrender to its world and embrace its presentation of everything. Let Atticus be the father we all want, give vent to the rage we feel at the treatment of Tom Robinson, and enjoy these heart-stopping moments from the novel (please note: Spoiler Alerts if you haven’t read the novel).
‘Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.’
Atticus has failed to get a not-guilty verdict, but as he leaves the courtroom, the black community stands up in honour of his work. This moment never fails to make the hairs on the back on your neck stand up.
‘Take him, Mr Finch.’
The children — and the reader — are shocked when the sheriff asks Atticus, ‘One-Shot Finch’, as they discover he is called, to shoot the rabid dog. Atticus has kept his shooting prowess quiet. He doesn’t want his children to think that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.
‘There’s a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it’s dead…I may not be much, Mr Finch, but I’m still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife.’
Way to go, Mr Tate! He persuades Atticus to let humanity and natural justice trump the letter of the law. Boo Radley should not face trial.
‘His fingers found the front-door knob. He gently released my hand, opened the door, went inside, and shut the door behind him. I never saw him again.’
Boo Radley, the local kids’ object of fear and fascination, has emerged from his reclusive existence to save Jem and Scout’s lives, and returns to his solitary life.
A low-key moment until you remember the first line of the novel – ‘When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow’ — and realise that this is how it happened, when Bob Ewell attacked him. Harper Lee’s masterly way with structure packs an emotional punch, here and elsewhere in the book.
If you haven’t read the novel, do so before the newly announced sequel comes out. There is so much in it to admire and enjoy.