I know the fact that this book was even published is a controversy. And even worse it takes one of the world’s most beloved characters and turns him into a flawed human being. But I thought it was incredible and I consider it lucky that people are able to get the full picture of Atticus Finch.
I’m not saying it’s not without its faults–the first 100 pages of the book is slow. Lots of back and forth about marrying or not marrying a guy. Lots of flashbacks to childhood that don’t necessarily advance the story, but more give background information that would be useful had Mockingbird never existed. But when it finally slaps you in the face, I couldn’t put it down.
Jean Louise, formerly known as Scout, has come home to Maycomb from where she’s been living in New York. The town is pretty much the same, it’s a major trip down memory lane. She doesn’t quite fit in up North, but she doesn’t quite fit in down South now, either. Her childhood friend, Hank, is now an attorney working with her father and her boyfriend of sorts when she’s home. Jem unfortunately died, so her Aunt Alexandra has come to live with Atticus because he’s older and can’t quite take care of himself. Calpurnia is no longer their housekeeper, but still in town… back with “her kind.”
It starts with the continued lesson from To Kill a Mockingbird – this idea that you stick with your own kind. Alexandra keeps reminding Jean Louise that Hank is trash and Finches are better than that. Typical Southern fodder that she can easily ignore… even though she knows she’s never going to marry Hank, just not for that particular reason.
Then Atticus and Hank attend a council meeting. When Jean Louise follows them and snoops in on the discussion, she realizes they both firmly believe that they need to protect the black people from themselves. That they’re “in their childhood as a people” and that they’re not ready for equal rights, and it’s their job to bring them along in white society slowly.
The shit hits the fan. Everything Jean Louise has worshipped about her father is now a lie. Everything she had been taught wasn’t how he really felt, and she was in a rage that he dared to lead her on in such a way. She’s determined to leave and never see anyone from Maycomb ever again, when her uncle slaps her across the face and sits her down to explain reality to her.
There were a few incredibly written lines at the end of this book, with insight that goes beyond the central conflict. The first talks about how Jean Louise grew up confusing her father for God–that he could do no wrong, that she always looked to him for guidance and answers to everything, and she lost her own conscience in the process. She had to reclaim her identity when she finally realized she’d been wrong about him. The second mentioned that both prejudice and faith both begin where reason ends.
But ultimately, Harper Lee used the equal rights movement as a backdrop–the message applies far beyond the one issue. And I can see how, at the time, this particular story might have been too hot to handle because of that. After re-reading what was originally published, and what had to wait until after her death, the message is clear both times. There’s no such thing as a perfect person, and you’re a failure yourself if you can’t look at someone who believes differently than you and seek to understand instead of dismiss.
Yes. Atticus is human. He believed in the letter of the law, which is why he defended the man who’d been wrongfully accused of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird but it was that exact same belief in the law that led him to believing he knew better than others on how to “guide” black people to his version of a civilized, equal life. It’s wrong, but Jean Louise failed when she tried to dismiss it instead of understand it. NOT accept it. But understand it.
The ultimate virtue is that Jean Louise can now become her own person. She can understand her father, realize he has flaws, and still stand up for her own beliefs despite them being in direct opposition to his. She can let go of what’s been holding her back her whole life and become who she was meant to be.
I have a deeper appreciation for Harper Lee–this quiet, unassuming woman from the South–handing out doses of equality and human rights without ever having to say it outright. It is, after all, the Southern way. That’s why we say “Bless your heart” instead of calling you a moron. Because that’s what we really mean.