I’ve been joining several book clubs online, local and international, to help me explore and diversify my reading list. It’s also an attempt for me to break through from my usual nonfiction niche since many of the club members read fiction. It’s fascinating to see the range of genres, books, and authors people read from all over the world and across ages. It is a treat to learn about books I’ve never heard of or even classics, which many claim “everyone should read before they die,” that I have yet to pick up. That’s why I’m always on the lookout for these recs in my book clubs.
One of the must-read titles that always pops up is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Since it’s a well-loved classic, I have known about it for years but had never read it until recently. So for this Women’s History Month, I’m sharing this magnum opus by American novelist Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016).
Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and was also adapted into an Academy Award-winning film of the same name starring Gregory Peck in 1962. It tells the coming-of-age story of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as she and her older brother, Jem, try to relate to their father, Atticus, who is a lawyer defending a black man falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in a fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. The plot and characters are loosely based on Lee’s own life experiences in her hometown in Monroeville, Alabama when she was 10 years old.
Through the years, To Kill a Mockingbird has become a widely read book and a classic in modern American literature that deals with serious issues on morality, racism, and inequality. It’s been translated into about 40 languages and its following has grown not only in the United States but all over the world. Here’s why Filipinos should read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee—spoiler-free!
Valuable advice on parenting
The book follows the story of the Finch family consisting of Atticus, a lawyer and a widower; his children, Jem and Scout; and their black housekeeper, Calpurnia. The story is told from the point of view of the daughter Scout, who is six at the start and around nine years old by the end of the book. She is considered smart for her age and is quite unconventional because of her “tomboyish” qualities. She usually spends her time with her brother Jem and best friend Dill.
Meanwhile, Atticus is an honorable man respected by many in their community. He’s also a kind yet discerning father to his children. He always tries to teach them by example rather than instilling fear. He always makes it a point to them to treat everyone—regardless of race or background—with respect, compassion, and dignity. That might have been a radical idea in the context of 1930s’ American South where racial prejudice was rife. These characteristics catapulted Atticus to become one of the most beloved characters in literature, sans the later release of To Kill a Mockingbird’s earlier draft, Go Set a Watchman, in 2015.
Parents or those who are planning to become parents in the future can learn a lot from Atticus with regard to raising children. Some might not agree with every aspect of his parenting style but we can certainly pick up something that we can use to raise more intelligent, empathetic, and socially aware children.
Discussing pressing social issues
In connection, what I also like about Atticus is his willingness to introduce difficult topics like racism, injustice, and inequality to Jem and Scout. Although these might be complex concepts to discuss with children, it should not veer us from our responsibility to establish a strong moral foundation and educate them about these issues in their early years. This should be a part of our children’s awakening so that they won’t end up oblivious and detached from social realities when they grow up. Of course, we have to make our approach suitable for their age.
In the same essence, we as adults are responsible for our own growth in terms of being aware of the issues that directly or indirectly affect our lives. We should not turn a blind eye to injustice, inequality, poverty, discrimination, disinformation, and violence that are happening around us. We should equip ourselves with knowledge, pass on the right values to our children, so that they may not become apathetic towards their kapwa. More importantly, we have to continue to engage to raise the level of discourse and, hopefully, find solutions to these problems.
Looking into our moral compasses
Reading classic literature can teach us a lot of things about ourselves. It’s a good exercise for introspection and self-discovery. To Kill a Mockingbird as a story that tackles racism and social injustice told from the perspective of a child can also make us look into our moral compasses, or our ability to judge what’s right or wrong.
The book tells us a lot of important lessons about being human. But I think what resonates with me the most while reading is a quote from the American educator Booker T. Washington that says: “A lie doesn’t become truth, wrong doesn’t become right, and evil doesn’t become good, just because it’s accepted by the majority.” As they say, the majority wins but that does not necessarily mean that they are right. Same goes with the townsfolk in Maycomb, Alabama.
Being legal doesn’t automatically equate to being right. We can see a lot of instances of this in history. Remember that slavery, Holocaust, Apartheid, and Martial Law were legal. Many people found these horrifying events “acceptable” and “necessary” at the time. Hence, these lessons from our history should serve as a reminder that we should do something not because it’s trendy and cool, but because it’s the objectively and morally right thing to do.
Interrogating our legal and criminal justice system
Atticus’ defense of a falsely accused black man and the subsequent events that transpire also make us think about our legal and criminal justice system. While the book is set in the American South in the 1930s, To Kill a Mockingbird’s morals go beyond time and space. It’s almost timeless and universal, and that’s what makes it “an outstanding phenomenon,” as Emmy Award-winning producer Mary McDonagh Murphy puts it. (Related: Scout, Atticus, and Boo)
What I picked from Atticus’ experience in the courtroom is that legality does not always equal morality. Reading the book as a Filipino makes me ponder upon our own social institutions and how they are inclined to protect the interest of the rich and powerful while trampling on the dignity and the rights of the poor and powerless.
In the context of our legal and justice system, the rich can afford the best lawyers to defend themselves in court, exploit loopholes, or even influence, intimidate, or buy off people. They also often enjoy the benefit of the doubt and due process of the law. And even if they get convicted, they still have a workaround to get away with it by flexing their wealth, power, and connections. That’s why we have plunderers and criminals who are free and even have the audacity to run for public office.
The poor don’t have that same luxury. Sometimes, their bare minimum rights are not even respected, or worse, they just end up lifeless on the street with the “‘wag tularan” signboard. That’s the depressing reality in the Philippines as embodied by Bamboo’s song, Tatsulok , that goes “…at ang hustisya ay para lang lang sa mayaman.”
Choosing good and doing good
To Kill a Mockingbird explores the moral nature of human beings and a child’s awakening that there is evil in this world. The “mockingbird” represents the idea of innocence. As Atticus says: “mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy… but sing their hearts out for us.” That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird because to kill one signifies the destruction of innocence and the betrayal of trust in the goodness and rationality of humanity.
As Filipinos, I hope we keep this in mind as we live our everyday lives and as we make important decisions that could affect our lives and the future of our children. Remember to always do good and choose good, and not fall into the trap of thieving liars who are calling for unity without the slightest sense of accountability and remorse. Choosing a thief and a liar is like killing a mockingbird, and killing a mockingbird is a sin. ☁️