To Kill a Mockingbird by
200
(298 Stories)

Prompted By Banned Books

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

I was a voracious reader in my day and read many books that had been banned at one some point. I read most of them just for fun, or to satisfy a quota to read “so many” books per card-marking period. I read “Huck Finn” in 5th grade. Perhaps I was too young to understand all the nuances. I thought it was a great adventure story, reading it right after “Tom Sawyer”.

I read “1984” and “Catcher in the Rye” on my own during periods of high school vacation. The first I found very disturbing (even more so now, as we creep in the direction of totalitarian government and thought police). The second was a coming of age story – a disaffected youth. I didn’t relate to it all that well. I had my own stuff to deal with, but not like Holden Caulfield dealt with his stuff.

But the book that I loved best and had the most impact on me was “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I read it in 8th grade, not for a class assignment; again I read it on my own. My thoughts about it are probably mostly shaped by the Academy Award winning movie. I thought I looked like Scout, as depicted in the movie.

Betsy, aged 3.

See what I mean? I had to look up what was so controversial that the book was banned. I gather it was the use of the “n” word. Interesting…that was how prejudiced people in the deep South spoke (the story takes place in rural Alabama from 1934-1936). It is based on Harper Lee’s own childhood experiences, whose father was a lawyer and newspaper publisher.

The novel also depicts prejudice, a lynching, poverty, the unjust accusation of a Black man assaulting a white woman. These are difficult subjects to be sure. A white lawyer is chosen to defend the Black man, so he has the hope of getting a fair trail. But there is no justice for Tom Robinson, even though it is clear that he couldn’t possibly have done the crime of which he is accused (he doesn’t have use of his right hand after a cotton gin accident, so couldn’t have struck the girl, as she claimed). The white girl committed the sin of flirting with him, her father beat her for it and falsely accused the Black man, knowing the other townspeople would back him. The jury, of course, sides with the perjured white people, the good lawyer tries to keep Tom Robinson calm, saying they will appeal to a higher court, but Tom is shot by the mob on his way back to jail.

Atticus Finch, the noble lawyer, is a widowed father of two young children, Jem and Scout, who have their own adventures. He tries to teach them morality, but Jem and Scout are attacked on their way home from a school play one autumn evening by the man who has killed Tom Robinson and is out for revenge on the family who defended Tom. Scout is in a costume and can’t really see what is happening, hears the scuffle, Jem’s arm is broken, she is picked up and carried to safety. A reclusive neighbor, who the children have tried to contact for years, actually rescues them, but wants to remain in the shadows. Scout realizes that her rescuer is none other than “Boo” Radley, her reclusive neighbor. She quietly escorts him home, understanding that exposing him would be as senseless as shooting a mockingbird, a bird who does nothing but bring joy with its song and is defenseless.

That is the basic plot. Published in 1960, the book won a Pulitzer Prize and is considered one of the greatest pieces of American literature ever published. Harper Lee remained reclusive her entire life. At the end of her life, she published a follow up novel (which was actually written first, but set aside for decades), that was not well-received. “Mockingbird” teaches moral lessons on race, prejudice, class and social welfare. I have always found it very moving and more than a few lawyers cite it as the reason they became lawyers. It is a movie I never tire of watching.

Shortly before the pandemic, we were lucky enough to see the Aaron Sorkin-adapted Broadway production of the work in New York. It obviously had to take a different slant, given the time and physical constraints of doing a live production. In it, he emphasized the role of Calpurnia, the housekeeper, who becomes more a moral center, speaking truths to Atticus, pointing out his flaws and weaknesses. He is no longer a perfect individual, but rather, trying to improve. It is a strong piece, even though it is different. We, the audience, are given a different, but equally interesting, perspective, now 60 years after the book was published.

I still don’t understand why the book was ever banned. There is much going on around the world, but particularly here in the United States that baffles and horrifies me today. How can children learn if their stereotypes are not challenged, if they are not taught to be critical thinkers, if they are not made to feel just a little uncomfortable and pushed in some ways. They need to leave their comfort zones and walk in another’s shoes, experience another’s ways, see how others feel and what better way to that than through the safety of reading and using one’s own imagination.

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific description of a terrific book, Betsy. And the Gregory Peck movie and a stage adaptation I saw a number of years ago (pre-Sorkin) were also excellent. And, yes, you do resemble Scout.

    I also believe that you are right about the “n” word being the reason the book was banned. Though it could have been banned in the South for its unflattering — and truthful — account of its history of racial prejudice. That said, that word is also used throughout “Huckleberry Finn,” (Huck casually refers to Jim by it from time to time). However, I would bet that it was expurgated from any version you read in fifth grade.

    And, as you note, what should be banned is the racism that books like “To Kill A Mockingbird” depicts. And, as Buffalo so tragically showed us last week, that is still alive and thriving in America.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I agree, John. Unfortunately, racism in the guise of “replacement theory” in the dark corners of the web (and on Fox News and spouted from some Republican’s campaigns) is very much alive and well. We would all do well to heed the lessons in many of the banned books before the bigots come for many of us!

    • Dave Ventre says:

      Sad, John, that your comment became tragically outdated so soon. The tragedies pile up faster than a normal mind can process them. More incoming shoes….

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        Was this current horror the result of racism or just too many guns and an 18 year old who had been bullied? Either way, another outrage that the Right-wing refuses to deal with. Certainly, there were no hero cops here.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    Thanks for doing g a synopsis of Mockingbird—I read that book and loved it, but the details became hazy with time. When a book is banned for what seem to be for flimsy reasons, when the underlying message is so important, it certainly suggests that there is really an antipathy to that message. I hope students can still get access to that wonderful book. It’s message is unfortunately not outdated.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Its message is all too relevant, Khati. I don’t think it is banned today, but who knows what is going on. I think these days the taboo subject matter is more about the history of slavery and certainly anything to do with gender identity. Teaching our country’s history of slavery is mislabeled “CRT” (it isn’t) and teaching about gender is somehow going to “convert” kids to be something other than what they already are. Adults must feel really threatened about themselves these days.

  3. Thanx Betsy for your thoughtful critique of Harper Lee’s masterpiece. Less known may be that the reclusive Southern writer had a pied a terre on E 82nd St in Manhattan, now since her death marked with a plaque.

    Yes indeed in this scary time of challenges to Roe and CRT and school curriculums, the book banning mentally is again a reality.. The right wing wants to “protect” our children from progressive ideas while defending hate speech as “free speech”.

    Heaven help us, what Trump has wrought.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    You did look like Scout, Betsy! Thanks for the wonderful retelling of the book’s plot. It’s been a long time since I read it. Like you, I loved the book as well as the movie. I totally agree with your final paragraph. Banning a book like Mockingbird deprives this current generation of students of the opportunity to learn, think critically, and view the present through the lens of the past.

  5. Betsy you did such a remarkable job at concisely retelling the plot that you had my eyes wet with tears by the time you got me to the end!
    That’s interesting about how the Broadway play reworked it and centered Calpurnia; I had assumed it was just the straight story, taken from the novel.
    A lot of people thought my Dad, an attorney, was kind of an Atticus Finch (founding member of the Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, at a time when in the eyes of the establishment, ACLU equalled “communist.”) It didn’t hurt that his name was Fink and that some of his African-American clients tended to mispronounce his name as “Finch.”

  6. Marian says:

    As you just replied, Betsy, I have my doubts that the book banners actually have read these books. I was curious about the new play, having seen a few clips of it on television. And yes, you do look like Scout.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      People are frightened by the unknown, I fear, Mare, and tend to believe what people in authority tell them (their “dear leaders”, or ministers perhaps?). Thanks, I always thought I looked like Scout too (at least the movie version). I read that Mary Badham (the movie Scout) is in the play now, playing the neighbor.

  7. Suzy says:

    I will add my voice to the chorus saying that 3-year-old you looks just like Scout! Adorable! I love that book, and Gregory Peck as Atticus in the movie is unforgettable. Lots of people decided to become lawyers because of him.

    I am currently reading a book called The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams, in which Mockingbird plays a crucial part. (It is the first book on a reading list that keeps appearing in mysterious places.) I know you don’t read much because of your eye problems, but you might be able to get it as an audiobook.

  8. Thanks, for this, Betsy. As all have said so well. It’s actually “liberals” who urged the banning of both Huck and Mockingbird. They didn’t want to teach the n word, which was and is a White derogatory. I still say that within context, anything can be taught, and those banning both books are also omitting great literature from the shelves of schools and homes.

    Granted, after Go Set a Watchman, we see that Harper Lee knew her father was far from perfection, which Sorkin’s amazing play set straight. And granted, the White Saviorism of Atticus, which I totally loved, is less than savory these days.

    Still, Mockingbird and Huck Finn both make my heart sing. Even though it’s been years since I read either. Wasn’t it Maya Angelou that said it’s not what you say that people remember, but how their words make you feel? If so, both books soar.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Context is everything, Lucinda. We have a controversial Guston show at the Boston MFA that recently opened after several delays. It includes his KKK paintings, now VERY unsettling, but with proper wall text it can be explained that he is the child of Russian Jewish refugees who settled in Canada after pogroms drove them from their homeland in 1904. They came to the US in 1922 and he was startled to witness KKK rallies and anti-Semitism here (he changed his last name from Goldstein in 1935). You just need proper context, a teachable moment.

      I didn’t know the Maya Angelou quote so I looked it up: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will not forget how you made them feel”. Great quote! Thank you for introducing me to it.

Leave a Reply