Novel about childhood, Prejudice, Racial injustice

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Harper Lee (1926-2016) was an American novelist who made friends in her childhood with a neighbouring boy called Truman Capote (1924-1984), who himself became a very successful novelist, screenwriter and playwright, and occasional actor.

Lee obtained a degree in law from the University of Alabama over ten years before the publication of her celebrated first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), which explores themes of prejudice and social and racial injustice in contemporary small-town Alabama, in the southern United States. A billed sequel to the book, Go Set a Watchman, was eventually published in 2015, shortly before her death, in circumstances mired in controversy, but she did not have any other books published during her long life, and is known almost solely on account of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The central characters in To Kill a Mockingbird are three children growing up in innocence of the problems of society only to be brutally confronted by some of them, helping to make the work enduringly popular with successive generations of children of school age and also a standard reader for teachers of English literature. These characters consist of an adventurous young girl called Jean who prefers the nickname of Scout, her elder brother Jeremy (known as Jem), and a slightly older boy in her neighbourhood called Dill, for whom she has somewhat romantic as well as friendly feelings. The character of Scout was based on Lee herself, while Dill was based on her own childhood friend Capote, helping to imbue the relationship between the characters with a vividness that stems from lived experience.

Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, is a respected practising attorney who takes on the legal defence of a black man named Tom Robinson, who has been falsely accused of the rape of a young white woman by her father, a man named Bob Ewell. As a white man at a time of prevailing racial segregation and persistent prejudice against the black community in the American Deep South, Atticus is considered brave even to take on the case for the defence, and cuts an isolated figure in the role. Virtually the entire local white population seems to have made up its minds that the accused is guilty, Scout and Jem are insulted by other children at school because of their father’s role in the case, and a lynch mob with its sights on Tom has to be averted. Despite his unflinching dedication to the cause of his client, Atticus fails to win the case, so Tom is convicted by the prejudiced jury, and sentenced to a long spell in prison. While attempting to escape, he is shot dead.

A related theme of prejudice centres upon a reclusive young man called Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley who had himself become an object of vicious rumours, including among the children, because of his unusual habit of still living at home with his parents well into adulthood, and hardly ever going outside.

Despite Tom’s conviction and execution, Bob begrudges Atticus for having publicly humiliated him during the trial by undermining his mendacious testimony, and thereby damaging his reputation. He decides to take revenge on Atticus by viciously attacking Jem and Scout while they are outside after dark. However, they are dramatically saved by the sudden practical intervention of Boo Radley, who is thereby revealed to be a decent though very shy person, and not the monster that had been feared. In the mêlée, Bob is stabbed to death, and thereby finally gets his long overdue comeuppance. Although the investigating sheriff believes Boo has killed him, the clear circumstances of his acting to protect the children from immediate grave danger to their lives persuade the sheriff to record Bob’s death as a suicide, so Boo is spared prosecution for manslaughter and is able to resume his reclusive lifestyle without consequence.

The character of Boo Radley gave direct inspiration to a successful British indie band of the 1990s, the Boo Radleys, who scored 12 UK Top 75 singles chart hits from 1992 to 1998, with their greatest successes coming after they changed their style from shoegaze to Britpop in the mid-1990s.