To Kill A Mockingbird

It has been said that everyone has a book inside them. I’m not sure who said it, and I don’t know if it is all that true, though I have always felt it to be so for me. Of course we live in a world now where lots of folks want to be famous, and even more want to be rich, and therefore they are always looking for ways to make that happen. I suppose writing a book is just as good of an option as any, and maybe even better than most (for example doing “reality TV” or making a sex tape). However, there are a couple of perils. First of all, our bookstores become polluted with crap that it is difficult to believe was ever published in the first place (much like the plethora of asinine television shows & movies that should have never been greenlighted). Secondly, authors who achieve success right out of the gate are encouraged to write more, oftentimes with specious results. Sometimes it really is better to quit while you are ahead.


In the annals of one hit wonders I think most folks would agree that author Harper Lee ranks right up there with Soft Cell, Mark Hamill, John Adams, and Dexys Midnight Runners. I am tempted to say that it is a shame that she only wrote one novel, but when that one novel is the Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill A Mockingbird then there is really nothing left to prove and nowhere to go but downhill.


Though they really aren’t all that similar it occurs to me that Mockingbird and the previous novel we examined…Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine…have a few things in common. They both take place in the same general era…Mockingbird in the mid-1930’s in the midst of The Great Depression, Dandelion Wine in 1928 just before the Depression. Both are set in a sleepy small town, the kind that we wax nostalgic about in 21st century America. And both have children as the main protagonists, allowing the story to be told thru the eyes of a child and therefore necessitating an accessible writing style without sacrificing literary elegance. But the comparisons end there.


To Kill A Mockingbird is an unflinching look at racism in the early 20th century, and though it is at times uncomfortable (especially when observed thru the politically correct prism that has almost become the standard in modern times) there is such an easygoing innocence from the point-of-view of the narrator that the rough edges seem much more palatable.


The story is about the Finch family in Maycomb, Alabama. There is the narrator…9 year old Jean Louise, nicknamed Scout…her older brother Jem…and their widowed father Atticus, a wise, even-tempered lawyer with a strong sense of morality. Scout & Jem spend their days in school and their evenings & summertime playing and hanging out with a neighbor boy named Dill. Scout, Jem, & Dill become obsessed with a reclusive neighbor named Boo Radley who for many years has been the subject of rumors painting him as some kind of freaky monster and hasn’t been seen by anyone since he was a teenager. Meanwhile, Atticus takes on the case of Tom Robinson, a poor black man accused of raping his white female neighbor Mayella Ewell. Robinson’s trial is a major event in Maycomb, and it exposes the children to the racist outlook of a town that they had heretofore only known to be filled with friendly neighbors & schoolmates. Eventually the two storylines intersect, although if you want to know how you’ll just have to read the book.


To Kill A Mockingbird is an important book. I wouldn’t hesitate to place it in the mix with The Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the works of Shakespeare & Dickens, and The Holy Bible as one of the most significant things ever written. That will sound like hyperbole only to those who have not had the pleasure of reading it. It embodies a time, a place, and an attitude that we still haven’t completely laid to rest. Yes we have made remarkable strides, but we cannot truthfully say that racism no longer exists. They may be fewer in number, but there are still people with an “us and them” outlook. The difference between now & then is that we are fully aware that it is wrong. To a certain extent the racism in Mockingbird is portrayed in such a matter-of-fact way that we can conclude that many folks back then didn’t realize how wrong they were. It was the way it was. There was a hierarchy and everyone had their place and played their proper role in society. Even the ethical hero of the book Atticus Finch employs a black housekeeper, something that we see today as a racial stereotype. When reading a story like this we are forced to confront our own views and one wonders how various people have been impacted as society has evolved over the past few decades.


I would be remiss if I did not mention the fantastic 1962 film based on the book and starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Like most movies based on books there are some minor characters left out and substantial subplots that are shortchanged or eliminated, but overall it is a faithful adaptation and quality production.  As usual in these cases I strongly caution against skipping the book in favor of just watching the movie. The book is an almost breezy read, which is surprising given its gravitas. If you haven’t read it you really should. God knows it’s better than watching The Bachelor or anything starring a Kardashian.




The Old Man & The Sea

I like a good novella. It’s longer than a short story, and just a wee bit lengthier than a novelette, but much shorter than a novel. I’ve never had an issue devouring an interesting 500+ page book (for example, the Harry Potter series, which I love), but I have found that, as the years advance, I sometimes appreciate a briefer journey.


The diminutive length (it comes in at under 100 pages) of Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece The Old Man & The Sea belies its greatness. Whether one chooses to just enjoy it as a good yarn or embraces a deeper message full of symbolism and implied significance doesn’t really matter. I first read the story as a teenager in junior high school. The allegorical imagery had to be explained to me back then, and I vaguely recall not being much into all that mumbo jumbo. But I still enjoyed the tale. Decades later I understand that stuff. I get it. And it just makes for a richer, more gratifying experience.


Santiago is a simple man…a very poor man, atleast by societal standards. He is a fisherman in 1950’s Cuba. As we meet him Santiago has gone 84 days without catching a single fish and has lost his young apprentice Manolin because the boy’s father thinks the old man is bad luck. However, the boy shows a sincere devotion to his mentor, looking in on him, bringing him food, and helping him gather up his supplies before and after a day on the ocean. Finally Santiago makes a bold decision. On that 85th day he ventures far out to sea…way further than anyone else, and certainly beyond the point that a single elderly fellow in a small skiff with no help really should. However, his gamble seems to pay off when he snags a mammoth marlin that he estimates to be 1500+ pounds. Unfortunately the fish won’t go down without a fight and pulls Santiago in his little boat even further out into the middle of the ocean. Then it becomes a 3 day battle of wills between the patient, determined, wise fisherman and his epic catch.


Most folks in Santiago’s position would give up. Either the long dry spell would stop them dead in their tracks, or the unenviable task of trying to haul in such a huge fish alone would prompt an all too common “Ehhh…it’s not worth the hassle” response. The Old Man not only won’t give up, but he approaches the task with an amazing display of composure, quiet determination, and judicious skill. He simply does what must be done. He does not surrender, believing that “Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”


We often talk of heroes. In our modern world we tend to put all kinds of people on a decidedly undeserved pedestal. We revere vacuous, morally corrupt celebrities, spoiled, overpaid athletes, and all of The Pretty People. But we overlook the folks who simply get up each morning, put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and keep life moving forward with the products they make, the services they provide, and the seemingly menial tasks they complete. Millions of people every single day execute mundane jobs to the best of their ability, and unlike Santiago’s favorite baseball player Joe DiMaggio, there aren’t masses of people watching and cheering them on. But they do it anyway. Maybe that’s true heroism. Perseverance is indeed a vastly underappreciated quality.


I suppose the sea is like life itself…deep, immense, beautiful, occasionally scary, and with a whole host of surprises…both good & bad…lurking below the surface. Like Santiago we all need to venture out a little further than usual sometimes, and it helps if we are equipped with the proper tools, have amassed a good amount of knowledge & wisdom, and have the ability to ply our trade with deft skill. Sometimes we are rewarded with an impressive catch, and other times evil with reach up and bite us like the sharks Santiago encounters on his journey homeward. Either way we must face the struggle with dignity, courage, patience, optimism, and intelligence.


I was never much into fishing. My Dad would take me every once in a while when I was a kid, but truth be told I preferred to be home watching TV or reading a book. I guess I just don’t have the patient temperament necessary. If I had to make a living fishing I would probably starve, and I definitely wouldn’t be able to deal with an 84 day slump or endure a three day contest against a fish seven times my size, and that’s not even taking into consideration the sharks. I don’t even like to watch the scarier parts of Jaws for God’s sake. But I think it’s pretty obvious that Hemingway meant The Old Man & The Sea to be about a lot more than fishing, and in that he succeeded. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s a splendidly entertaining story too.