It’s 1960, and Harper Lee weaves a charmed, fictionalized account of her 1930s Alabama childhood. The first quarter of “Mockingbird” is a genial growing-up tale, about very young Lee/Scott Finch, her older brother Jem, and their youthful adventures. Add in: Atticus Finch, their kindly lawyer-father, using daily event to teach right and wrong; an Alabama small town and time, brightly detailed; a cast of eccentric but loveable neighbors; and the taste of local Lane cake and corn pudding.
Whoa! After 80 pages of this, Lee whips gear to focus a very adult dilemma. Black Tom Robinson is unjustly tried for raping a white woman. Hereafter the novel strikes stronger theme, exploring the trial’s effect on the Finches and fellow townspeople. But the ideal justice Lee so carefully evokes is quickly disappointing: a sugar-dusted variation on enlightened racism.
Lawyer Finch defends Robinson. Risks his life to defy entrenched hometown prejudice. Why? Because he believes justice should be colorblind? Think again. He gives Scout and Jem air guns, and this timely lesson: “Use these air guns to kill any bird you want.” (Really??) But never a mockingbird, a creature that does no harm. Parallels to Tom Robinson come fast and heavy-handed. He’s a “Yes, suh.” negro. Like the mockingbird, “That don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.” But a black man is no mockingbird.
This upbeat if sugary novel has enjoyed affectionate popularity for half a century. Partly because it’s easy conscience-consolation to define a good white man as one who strictly observes justice… on his own terms.
For rich sense of place, and fast-paced episodes, “Mockingbird” must be an interesting discovery for readers unfamiliar with this U.S. time and territory. But in the National Education Association’s 2009 “The Big Read,” it made no stateside first among the 27 suggested books. In group-read choices, it ranked behind Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Just maybe, as a country, we’re growing up.