Wednesday, May 28, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee, first Copyright 1960. ISBN 0-06-019499-5 (40th Anniversary Edition)
*Vocabulary notes added 5/28/08

It's clear why this book is considered a classic of our times. In this (apparently her one and only) book, Harper Lee has managed to capture not only the temperament of a small Alabama town during the Depression, but the developing awarenesses of a child growing up in an environment of sometimes but not altogether small-minded citizens.

The story centers around an unusual but obviously functional family -- Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, a girl of six when the story begins, who defines the word precocious; Atticus Finch, her distant yet empathetic father; and Jeremy Atticus (Jem) Finch, her unusually insightful older brother (10 at the beginning of the story).

With personalities clearly defined, the supporting cast of characters -- mysterious and maligned Boo Radley; empathetic Miss Maudie; seemingly oppressive but vulnerable Mrs. Dubose; helpful, no-nonsense Calpurnia; tragic Tom Robinson -- could each have stories built around them. Even those whose names are mentioned only occasionally play a vital part in this story of lost innocence, the evolving realization of life's hard realities for Jem, Scout, and their friend, Charles Baker Harris (Dill). As I skim through the book again, I am astounded at the number of characters; yet I never had trouble keeping them straight.

There's no explanation, that I remember, of why Jean Louise is called Scout, why Charles Baker is Dill, or why Scout and Jem call their daddy by his first name. As a reader, I just accepted those eccentricities as part of the flavor of the town and the family.

I will not go into the plot here, except to say that the story and its personalities capture your interest from the first page and carry you easily to the end. The book achieves a perfect blend of character and plot. Its subject matter and some of the expressions in the book appeared to be the source of some controversy at the time, and maybe even now, but I found it not only relevant -- no matter what part of the country you live in -- but extremely entertaining.

*Added 5/28/08
Just came across some notes I jotted down while reading the book -
New words I encountered -- and enjoyed meeting

p. 72 - touchous - "...Atticus was still touchous about us and the Radleys." (sensitive, in context)

p. 46 - scuppernongs - "...we could...eat [Miss Maudie's] scuppernongs if we didn't jump on the arbor." (A cultivated variety of the muscadine grape with sweet yellowish fruit)

p. 118 - palliation - "[Calpurnia] was a less than satisfactory source of palliation."

p. 134 - habiliments - "...that morning [the folding cot in the kitchen] was covered with our Sunday habiliments.

p. 135 - asafoetida, as in "...smell of clean Negro...Hearts of Love hair dressing mingled with asafoetida... (A brownish, bitter, foul-smelling resinous material obtained from the roots of several plants of the genus Ferula in the parsley family and formerly used in medicine.)

p. 136 - rotogravure - "...the church's only decoration except a retogravure print..." (a photomechanical process by which pictures, typeset matter, etc., are printed from an intaglio copper cylinder.)

p. 147 - shinny - "...Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight." (a slang term for liquor; usually whiskey or bourbon. Bourbon is a main ingredient in the recipe for a Lane cake.)

Not able to locate this use of the word shinny at dictionary.com, I found this website devoted to the vocabulary used in To Kill a Mockingbird -- apparently for a high school English class.

2 comments:

Yvonne said...

Engaging review, Cheryl. I am looking forward to re-reading it. The strongest memory I have of it is the unique "voice" of Scout, and the way I immediately liked her. Too bad it was the author's only book.

Cheryl Ann said...

Scout has to be one of the most lovable characters in all of literature, and she does have a unique voice. She thinks like a child but has the vocabulary of an adult. Somehow, it fits, because that's the way she hears her daddy talk. She sits on his lap and reads his newspapers and legal literature, and gets very frustrated when she starts school, because the teacher doesn't know what to do with a child who is way beyond "cat" and "hat." Some of her words sound made up -- like "habiliments," referring to the Sunday clothes that the housekeeper lays out for them on Sunday morning. Others words: "touchous" (sensitive) and "palliation" (comfort). (I made a list....)

I love the relationship she has with Atticus, too. And how surprised he is by her wise innocence. The scene in front of the jail house, when she turns away a group of men ready for a lynching, is astounding and touching at the same time.

I may convince myself to read this again!