It later emerged that Dill was loosely based on Harper Lee’s real life neighbour Truman Capote, another novelist also recently deceased.
We join Scout at the start of her schooling where we discover that she is a precocious child, already able to read and write. Some might describe her as old beyond her years. The story then takes us through three years of her life, including the period of the trial and its aftermath.
The use of Scout as the narrator is a very useful tool. As a child she is automatically considered to be naïve, which allows her to ask questions that no adult would think to ask, or maybe dare to ask. This is useful for the reader as the answers usually come from Atticus so we get to know him very well. They are more often avoided if asked of the other adult characters. We can feel Scout’s confusion as she is told by her first grade teacher not to read at home because she’s been taught to read “the wrong way”, which is one of the first narrow minded adult issues she has to deal with.
Most of the first part of the story is about the three children and their adventures which, despite the passage of time, are not really any different from those that I enjoyed as a child and which many children still enjoy. In one sub-plot they are much taken by the mysterious figure of their reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley (and you thought he was a 90s rock band), and spend much of their time devising ways to tempt him from his house.
Later the story turns to the trial of Tom Robinson and we discover some things that the film doesn’t make clear. The first is that Atticus didn’t willingly take on Tom’s defence. He is appointed to it by the County Court judge. The judge’s choice is deliberate of course, he wants Tom to have the best defence possible and Atticus is the man who will deliver that, but we are left with the interesting question: “Would Atticus have taken the case of his own accord?”
The reason I ask this is because the film makes Atticus appear very liberal, almost a man of the future. I think the book shows us a different man. He was liberal by the standards of many of his peers, there is no doubt of that but would he, for example, have voted for John F Kennedy or Barak Obama? I’m not convinced. He believed in justice for all and the equality of all men before the law, but that is not the same as being liberal by modern standards.
The film also omits some characters who have a considerable influence on Scout, those of Aunt Alexandra and Miss Dubose, for example. I can see the need for the Director of the film to be selective in what sections of the plot are included and which left out, but those decisions are what makes the book superior to the film. I actually rented the film to watch so that I could make those sorts of comparisons for this review.
This is where the story becomes so contentious, because white attitudes towards black people were just starting to be challenged openly in 1960 when the book was published. Rosa Parks took her famous bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 and the book was published only 5 years before the civil rights marches protesting about black people not being allowed to register to vote in Alabama, despite it being their legal right to do so.
It is of course impossible for Tom Robinson to get a fair trial from an all-white jury in Alabama in the 1930s, so Tom is duly convicted despite there being more than a little doubt over the evidence presented by the two key prosecution witnesses, Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella, the supposed victim of the rape. Indeed it is key to later events that the pair are shown up to be liars, but that isn’t enough to sway the jury. Indeed Tom is more than a little lucky not to have been lynched before the matter even got to trial.
It could be argued convincingly that it is still hard for a black person to get a fair trial in Alabama, even 80 years after the events depicted in this book, which makes the book as relevant today as it was then.
However, the period in which this book is set is crucial to the way it is told. In the story the last surviving Alabama veteran of the Confederate Army still lived in the town. The parents of most of the characters and some of the older characters, such as Miss Dubose, will have grown up in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, which left two communities struggling to makes sense of what had happened to their way of life. This will have doubtless had a profound effect on the way the white community viewed the black, while the black community discovered that being free was not the same as being equal.
8.6% of all US males are in prison (in UK it is 0.26% of the male population), but by far the largest proportion, 4.7%, are black compared to 0.7% white. The balance of the population is 63% white (not including Hispanic) while the population of those who classify themselves as black is only 16.3%. The law, it would appear, is far from being colourblind.
The fairness of trials with regard to race in the USA may be called into question, but there is also the matter of the social deprivation that forces people into crime, which appears to be far greater for black people than for white. Being black still doesn’t appear to mean being equal.
What about here in the UK? Well if we didn’t have bigotry then we wouldn’t have the BNP or EDL, so I don’t think we can class ourselves as being squeaky clean in this respect. A lot of the rhetoric around the EU referendum has centred on “control of our own borders”, which is code for keeping out people who we regard as not being the same as us.
Discussion of migrants and immigration makes up a fair proportion of our news agenda, even before the Syrian refugee crisis is taken into account, which is not the hallmark of a liberal society. I won’t even comment on how Asians with back packs are viewed when they get on buses or trains.
Do I recommend the book? Of course I do. My only regret is that I didn’t read it much earlier in my life.