I started reading To Kill a Mockingbird (TKM) last night for the first time in many years--part of my plan to reread books that formed me. Like the independent and resourceful Karana in The Island of the Blue Dolphins, the scrappy girl Scout in TKM had been a huge influence on little me.
After seeing the movie on TV in 1967 when my sister and I were around 6 and 8, for instance, we asked our parents for overalls like Scout's. They took us to Farm & Fleet and bought us each a pair.
I'm sure Atticus Finch defending the unjustly accused Black man, Tom Robinson (who, hm, gets murdered by the police...), was part of my education in racism.
In recent years though, I've been angry at TKM, (reactive, maybe, in the wake of George Floyd's murder by the police), seeing it as akin to Dances with Wolves: feel-good pap to soothe white guilt.
"I loved Atticus Finch/Kevin Costner, so I can't be racist" = I don't have to do anything much--feeling bad is good enough proof of my Goodness.
It's not as bad as Gone with the Wind's we-always-treated-our-darkies-well defense of slavery, no--but, you know, it offers a Get Out of Jail Free card for white responsibility.
HOWEVER... my anger about it has cooled off. Scout is a fantastic girl in a world lacking good girl characters--in the book and, even more amazingly, in the movie (played by Mary Badham).
And for 1960, the book was a powerful start in saying to the larger white public--including the girl me,
"Hey, we have a problem here. People, pay attention."
(Now I'd like to read Go Set a Watchman, which has a less angelic Atticus. Maybe more realistic, but would it have reached so many people?)
Anyway, I decided to re-read TKM.
And --wow--right from the start! By page 36, I am seeing that it's a more complex novel than I remembered. Talk about "problematic"--not the book, but the world it describes.
It's not about the powerlessness of Black people alone but of vulnerable people across the board--especially children.
The children of poor white farmers, for instance, come to school with no shoes, no lunch, and infected with hookworm.
And I'm remembering that the young woman, Mayella Ewell, who falsely accuses Tom Robinson of rape is herself being abused by her father.
Do you remember––I'd forgotten!––how Scout's white neighbor Arthur "Boo" Radley got to be the spooky way he is?
Early on we learn that when he was a teenager, Arthur got in with a bad crowd. The boys were arrested, and while the others got sent to a an industrial school (which turned out to be the saving of some of them), Arthur's father asked the judge to turn his son over to him, and he, Mr. Radley, would make sure Arthur was never a problem again.
The judge did, and Mr. Radley took Arthur home and made him a prisoner who was never seen again. Mrs Radley isn't seen much either, and you just know bad stuff is happening in their closed house.
"Nobody knew what form of intimidation Mr. Radley employed to keep Boo out of sight, but Jem figured that Mr. Radley kept him chained to the bed most of the time. Atticus said no, it wasn't that sort of thing, there were other ways of making people into ghosts."Everyone in town knew--the Finch's Black maid, Calpurnia, calls Mr. Radley "the meanest man ever God blew breath into"-- but no one did anything about it.
What could they do?
Atticus is a lawyer, but he tells Scout not to interfere--so I guess legally he was powerless.
Oh--I want to write more about this--but I'm off to work.
I'm feeling pretty good--will work a short day probably.
Buen Camino! (Good travels!)