Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee
Recommended Age: 10+

Naturally, I have to recommend that you see the award-winning, classic film based on this book, starring the late Gregory Peck. As a movie buff it would go against my principles not to. But I also, wholeheartedly, recommend reading the 1960 novel by Harper Lee. It is an incredibly moving experience.

Whether you have seen the movie or not, the image that probably comes first to your mind is the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman in the very southern town of Maycomb, Alabama. And how Atticus Finch, the only white lawyer who would defend him, courageously fought for an innocent man's freedom while being cheered on by his son Jem, his tomboyish but sensitive daughter Scout, and their playmate Dill. And that indeed is part of the story.

But it is not, in my opinion, the main part.

Atticus Finch, widower, war veteran, reluctant attorney, father of two, is a portrait of rare integrity and colorblindness, from a time and place where a difference of race divided communities as effectively as an ocean. And Ms. Lee does a capital job of coloring in the edges of the picture with the characters who live on the street, and the devoted black governess-housekeeper-cook named Calpurnia, and the lives of children running barefoot all summer and surviving school days the rest of the year.

But at the risk of being un-original, I have to say the main thrust of the book is a love story between a couple of carefree children and a disturbed individual named Boo Radley, who watches them play from behind his reclusive window. Lessons in the nature of good and evil, and the unexpected places where both may be found, combine with a beautiful portrait of childhood with all its joys and terrors, and of the old home place no one can really go back to.

Sometimes this book will chill your heart, sometimes warm it, sometimes make it want to stand dead still. But in the end your heart will be full of this book, and the unforgettable place and people it contains. Keep a box of facial tissue handy. And when you finish reading it (or re-reading it), rent a video of the movie.

NOTE: There are at least three other reasons this story will go down in history. First, this book won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Second, the film featured the big-screen debut of Robert Duvall. And finally, the real-life, childhood playmate on whom Harper Lee based the character of Dill was Truman Capote. I kid you not.

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