Banned Book Club – To Kill a Mockingbird

Saskatoon Freethinkers started up an extra group within the group a few months back with the intention of reading books that have been banned or challenged for various reasons.

The first book we focused on in October was The Satanic Verses and it has occurred to me that I never bothered to write up anything about that meet. To very briefly summarize, I think we wound up wondering what motivated Rushdie to write it – how much of it was truly meant as criticism of religion and whatever else, and how much of it was Rushdie trying to inject himself into the elitist British society through the publishing of it, thus creating in reality the life’s ambitions of one of his book’s main characters.

It’s hard to understand the intentions of people when you have no access to the thoughts in their heads, yeah? And it’s very easy to make snap judgments about people and let misunderstandings and stereotypes stop progress.

That was one of the themes we wound up discussing in terms of Harper Lee’s classic, as there are many characters in the book who are multifaceted, mysterious, and misunderstood. For those who’ve never read it (for shame!), it’s told from the perspective of Scout, a young girl whose lawyer father, Atticus Finch, has been assigned the duty of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama. Being an unfair kind of world like it is, what looks like a deserved win results in a jury voting opposite, sending the harmless, polite and disabled Tom Robinson to prison. The case makes the Finch family a target for hatred, brought about by, you guessed it, misunderstandings and stereotypes.

The story as a whole focuses on Scout and her elder brother Jem, how they see the world they live in and the people who populate it. Fortunately, they’ve got a father who gives a damn (another theme we touched on, as there are a couple good examples of shitty parenting in there) who is keen on teaching his children to think and be rational and open minded. He’s put a lot of effort into being a good role model for them as well and it’s paid off. They’re intelligent, curious, well adjusted, and well aware of injustice and inequality by the end of the book.

Another thing we hit on was Lee’s choice (for lack of better wording) to keep things so black and white. The white trash is really, really, white trash and there isn’t a bad black man in the lot. I think there were some other examples brought up..something about so many other characters being superficial caricatures of various stereotypes. Was Lee falling into the trap Finch himself wanted to keep his kids out of, or was it merely a convenient method to set the stage as simply and succinctly as possible so she could concentrate efforts on fleshing out the characters who really mattered to her instead?

We also got into a discussion about the role of men in society. What makes a man a man and have gender roles and ideas about appropriate behaviour for men changed much since Lee wrote the book in 1960? And how much does behaviour depend on who might be watching?

One of the guys brought up an interesting example of that via a scene in the book involving a mad dog and the need to kill it. Finch had been a sharp-shooter of some skill in his younger days, a role he’d set aside once he’d married and become a parent and a lawyer. Now he’s being told by a friend/neighbour/fellow townie that it’s essentially his duty to kill this thing and he’s handed the gun. Scout witnesses this and sees him take his glasses off (a physical manifestation of evolved rational thought?) and they break when they hit the ground. I seem to recall that both kids are there when he reluctantly regresses into a violent (less evolved?) past to deal with a potential danger to his kids.

There was also a bit of a debate about how to read the book. Should we read it and reflect on its historic significance as a snapshot of an earlier time and mentality, or should we be looking at the story and how it relates to us now and how we feel today about racial issues in our society? Should groups be up in arms today over Lee’s use of the word “nigger” if it was a commonly heard term in the period her book is set? Or do they have a legitimate beef because Lee used it too much when other phrases or descriptions could have been used instead?

And we briefly touched on what Lee really feels about the book’s continued success – something we can’t know because she’s a recluse who rarely grants interviews (none at an essay contest in 2006, one in 2010 where she didn’t want to talk about the book at all, one in 1964). I knew it was somewhat inspired by her father’s law career, but I didn’t know until the other night that the young character Dill is a nod to Truman Capote, a lifelong friend of hers.

The next book we’ll be talking about is one I hadn’t heard of called Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre. It won the Man Booker in 2003 so it’s not going to be crap and it appears to be a black comedy/satire about school shootings and suicide. Hardly my usual fare, but hey.

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