Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Not Buying It

When we got to the part of To Kill A Mockingbird where Tom Robinson is found guilty of raping Mayella Ewell, my kids were livid.


"That's not right!"

"It's not fair."

"This book is so dumb."

"Why did she write it like that?"

It had taken a long time to hook my kids into this read--the catalyst for that would be Boo Radley--and when they were finally willing to settle into setting, to know the characters, Harper Lee blew it for them at the climax.

"Well, wait," I told Dominic (13), Daney (12), and Rees (10). "What do you think this book--the Book of the Century--is about?"

They told me it was whether Tom was let go or given the death penalty.

"Is that everything?" I asked. "What does that have to do with killing a mockingbird?"

This was a different read for our family. It was not fantastical Harry Potter or spirit-of-survival Little House on the Prairie. As the kids get older, we read deeper. The last book we read together was The Boy in Striped Pajamas.

But this--this timeless, timely tale--this was the most slow, the most rich, the most complex (I'm gearing them up for Grapes of Wrath).

"Could it be," I asked, "That this book has less to do with what happened to Tom Robinson than what Scout and Jem think about it? That they felt like you do: that it wasn't fair. And why wasn't it? What does that say about how things were? And are things ever that way now?"

If Tom Robinson were let off, how could we review the essence of human nature? How would we know how difficult, if not impossible, it is to set aside reason from prejudice, even if a man's life is at stake?

What kind of folks will Scout and Jem grow to be? How were they different from most of their community? Why did their dad, Atticus, choose to foster that? Why does it matter?

Again, I believe that the difference between commercial and literary fiction comes down to conclusion. Mockingbird didn't end as we'd thought it would. It didn't end happy. We were dissatisfied, unravelled, even.

Days after we finished, the kids are still talking about the book. Yes, they were glad they got to "see" Boo. Because of that one scene, they raised the book to a B-, A-, A. But they're still walking around, grumbling that Tom Robinson got the chair. And that is why Harper Lee is a genius.

1 comment:

Deirdra Eden-Coppel said...

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Go to and pick up your award.