In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, we view a Depression Era criminal trial of an African American man in Alabama through the innocent eyes of our young narrator, “Scout” Finch. The trial reveals the hateful side of Maycomb County, thus becoming a painful lesson for Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill, the latter of which is so overcome with emotion during the prosecution’s harsh cross-examination of the defendant that Scout must escort Dill outside. As a surprisingly perceptive and sober Dolphus Raymond explains, “things haven’t caught up with [Dill’s] instinct yet. Let him get a little older and he won’t get sick and cry. Maybe things’ll strike him as being–not quite right, say, but he won’t cry, not when he gets a few years on him (229).”
After the inevitable verdict, Atticus echoes Mr. Raymond’s sentiment when he says, it “seems that only children weep” at the cycle of injustice in society (243). The justice system portrayed in Lee’s novel consists of jurors, judges, and lawyers, all drawn from the community, who are either inured to the injustice (at best) or in support of it (at worst), despite that fact that not one of them was born with such prejudice in their hearts.
We see that innocence in Scout, Jem, and Dill, who struggle to make sense of Maycomb County’s socially constructed hierarchies based on race and “background.” Scout concludes, emphatically, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks,” to which Jem replies dubiously, “That’s what I thought, too… when I was your age (259).”
Jem is twelve, around the age many readers first become acquainted with him, his family, and their thinly fictionalized Alabama. It’s a “pivotal age,” when, as author Lois Lowry once said, “[children] are still deeply affected by what they read… [and] books can change the way they feel about the world in general.” For these children, who are approaching adulthood, To Kill a Mockingbird contains an important reminder of the innocence of youth, a lesson they shouldn’t forget as they see the ways in which their reality hasn’t changed as much as they’re often told it has since Lee’s/Scout’s time. It’s an unfair reality they shouldn’t tolerate.
I was one of those children who was deeply affected by Harper Lee’s novel, a book that begins with an epigraph by essayist Charles Lamb: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.” Like many lawyers, I count this novel among the influences that eventually led me to law school and to my public interest legal career. It was a pleasure to revisit Lee’s words, which encouraged me to reminisce about my childhood and to evaluate whether my own sense of justice has remained true to who I am. I look forward to discussing this novel with my daughters someday. They don’t want to be lawyers, but we’ll see if they change their minds after meeting Atticus.
*This is the third and final post on my blog as a participant in Roof Beam Reader’s Read-along (Thank you to Adam for encouraging me to revisit this novel!). My previous posts are Revisiting the “Soft Pages” of To Kill A Mockingbird and Our Morbid Curiosity: Watching “Poor Devils” (Or Maybe Just “Devils“) On Trial.
**Check out the discussion on Twitter (#Mockingbirdreads).