Here, three weeks or so later, I'm happy to report that mission has been accomplished. It's a thought-provoking book, and here I record a few random thoughts so provoked.
First, a brief plot summary, for those similarly underedumicated. The main character and narrator is an 8 year-old girl called Scout growing up in 1935 in southern Alabama in a small town with her older brother and father, one Atticus Finch, a lawyer. Who, as it develops, has been appointed by the court to represent Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Scout takes her sweet time coming to the point, and there's a lot of material about what small town life in the South was like in the 1930s, which is charming in some ways, and seriously alarming in others, especially as the narrator presents it as just the way things are, and hence should be.
The book is centered on institutional racism; there's no way a black man can get a fair trial. Well, almost no way, as it happens, and it's a near thing; justice may have been done, almost, but of course the system fails; it was designed to fail.
There's a neighbor, Boo Radley, who sometime years before the present action did something untoward involving a woman, and his father undertook to keep him in check. He hasn't been seen outside the house since, and this is a source of endless fascination for the neighborhood children. Who pick at it as they might at a scab.
He appears from time to time when the children's attention is elsewhere (watching a neighborhood house burn on a cold night; an unfamiliar blanket appears and nobody can quite remember from whence it came), and in the climactic scene, when Scout is wearing a halloween costume and can't quite see what happened. Perhaps he represents fear of the unknown; a strange and so presumably malevolent presence, just beyond the senses.
The night before the trial, Atticus sends the kids to bed and goes down to hang out on the porch of the jail, just because he's expecting trouble. The kids of course want to see what's up, so they follow him, and Scout ends up engaging a member of the lynch mob in conversation about his son, a classmate of hers whom she's befriended (and invited to lunch occasionally). Thus interrupted by a civilized exchange of chitchat, the mob dissolves and goes home.
After the trial, Atticus in a rare moment of loquatiousness remarks that that Cunningham man was a juror whom he, Atticus, had on a whim chosen not to strike from the jury. He says if there had been a second such man on the jury, they might have had a hung jury, just because the two of them could then back each other up against the peer pressure that enforces the institutional racism. It's an interesting speculation, but I think the outcome would not have changed much by re-hearing the case, presumably with additional prosecutorial attention to exactly who was on the jury. Atticus does his very best to be a completely honest man in a very screwed-up time and place. Perhaps the judge realizes this in his choice of a lawyer for the accused.
The trial was a he-said, she-said, affair, with his story much the more plausible. Shut-in eldest daughter of a dirt-poor father of a multitude wanting to know what it was like, being with a man, and picked on the black man who helped out around the place occasionally, on his way home from his job (working for the one white man in the county who hung out with the black people by choice, carrying off this indiscretion by the artifice of drinking coke from a bottle in a bag, letting folks think it was whiskey). Interrupted by her father, she cried rape and Tom Robinson's fate was sealed.
I suppose the book could be read as an anti-death-penalty argument. But the notion that capital crimes exist is such a part of the culture that it's difficult to see how that was intended. That rape should be a capital crime was openly questioned by the characters.
In the end, Mr. Ewell (father of the woman involved) attempts to get his revenge on everybody involved, ends up dead with a knife in his ribs, and no witnesses but one unconscious boy, Scout, whose vision was impaired by her costume, and the idiot Boo Radley. The sheriff, over the objections of Atticus who thinks his son must be responsible and so (being a fundamentally honest man) should be held to account, decides Mr. Ewell fell on his own knife in the scuffle. End of story.
It's a very powerful tale, and extremely well-told. Wikipedia says that Harper Lee has only the one novel in print, published in 1960, but that she was awarded a medal of freedom or something such for contributions to American literature, in 2007. If you only have one tale to tell, may it be such a one.
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