To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of those books that I’ve reread since childhood and wondered how did I “get it” as a child. All the characters in that novel point out how we, as humans, judge others by their outer appearance rather than their inner qualities. Boo Radley: social outcast. Mayella Ewell: white trash. Tom Robinson: black man. In the real world of knee-jerk judgments, Atticus becomes Scout’s compass in navigating the cast of characters in her small town. In fact, he even becomes our compass in understanding a world that is messy and unfair. He tries to right the wrongs in a climate of racial prejudice. These are some big concepts for kids to intellectually juggle.
But aren’t children the best suited to recognize the absence of justice? The concept of fairness reaches deep down inside of you, especially as a child when you have such little power in this world. I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in middle school, a time in life which is the magnifying glass of inequality. It’s a time when you’re measured by the type of clothes you wear, the kind of shoes your family can afford. Everything is superficial. Bullying runs rampant. You are either a Somebody or a Nobody.
Atticus Finch has become my favorite character in all of fiction (so much so that if I had a second boy, Atticus was my top name choice). Besides being a champion for justice, I admire how he raises his two young kids as a single father. He teaches Scout to read at such a young age, skipping the children’s books and going straight for the newspaper. In To Kill a Mockingbird, we get to see Scout grow from the tender ages of six to nine. Over the course of the novel, Atticus talks to both of his kids about hard truths in a way that acknowledges their intelligence yet preserves their innocence.
My son is seven, smack dab in that magical age where the world still shines. He doesn’t judge people based on their outward appearance. He makes judgments based on if they are “mean” or “nice.” But he is growing and we have conversations about the gray areas.
“Sometimes kids have a difficult life at home,” I try to explain when he is being bullied on the playground.Sometimes people are just born bad. I may think that but I don’t tell him that yet, because I want to preserve his innocence for as long as I can. Before life shows him that lesson.
Atticus represents justice in an unjust world. Until now…
Two days ago I received my copy of Go Set a Watchman. I can’t open it. The news networks have been reporting about how Harper Lee portrays Atticus as a racist in this novel. I literally cannot believe that. How can she do that?!
Why would Harper do this? Why would Atticus do that? As an artist, I am guessing that Harper Lee is trying to say that life is not always fair. Things are not always easily understood. Maybe something really terrible happens to Atticus to make his character change so completely. In life that happens sometimes. Even the best of us can give in to the darkness within. That’s scary, but it can also be the truth.