I finally read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
I was rather ashamed that at age 42, I had not read the novel, first published in 1960, given its important and revered status in American and world literature.
For anyone who has not read it, I implore you to do so. It’s a wonderful novel, very readable and with a powerful message about the importance of tolerance and the evils of bigotry that has lost none of its power in world increasingly divided into “us” vs “them”.
Set in America’s racially divided deep south in the 1930s, it’s the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the small rural town of Maycomb in the state of Alabama, who represents a clearly innocent black man, Tom Robinson, accused of the rape of a white woman.
The story is narrated by Atticus’s Tom Boyish young daughter ‘Scout’ or Jean Louise, who through her own coming-of-age, becomes a conduit for the reader’s own moral education.
To Kill a Mockingbird also includes one of modern fiction’s great minor characters, the ghost-like ‘Boo’ Arthur Radley (brilliantly portrayed by a very young Robert Duvall in the Oscar-winning movie).
Having finished it, I wondered what I could say about a book that’s had so much said and written about it already.
What seemed obvious to me, the more I thought about it, was that you could read To Kill a Mockingbird as an excellent guide to parenting
After all, who really is Atticus Finch? Yes he’s the moral centre of the story, but he’s also just a single parent doing an amazing job raising two headstrong young children (Scout and her older brother Jem) into fair-minded, empathetic, non-judgemental and courageous human beings.
From my reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ve picked out some of the special qualities that makes Atticus Finch such a iconic parent:
Atticus tries to see the world from his children’s point of view.
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
This is one of the most famous lines from the book. It happens early on in the novel in a conversation after dinner between Atticus and Scout.
Scout is upset because her teacher, Miss Caroline, has told her to stop reading with her father, because he has ‘taught her all wrong’.
Scout is in fact very advanced for her age and way ahead of her classmates, something which unhinges her teacher.
Atticus precedes this piece of advice by calling it a “simple trick” but if you learn it “you can get along with all kinds of folks”.
What an incredible thing to tell a young child (Scout is about six or seven at the time) and how different the world would be if every child grew up with the notion that they try and see things from the point of view of others.
So much unnecessary confrontation, bitterness and unhappiness could be avoided in life if our children understood this “simple trick”
Atticus has perfected the art of explaining things.
Atticus Finch is unquestionable master at being able to explain complicated concepts to Scout and Jem without dumbing them down so they become meaningless.
Instead he takes the time to make sure they really understand why people act they way they do. Such as when Mr Cunningham, a poor local farmer, delivers fresh produce to their house. Atticus explains that this is the only way the Cunninghams can pay him for his legal services because “the [stock market] crash hit country folk the hardest”. He tells Scout:
Did you know that Dr Reynolds (the town physician) works the same way? He charges some folks a bushel of potatoes for delivery of a baby?
Atticus doesn’t answer his kids with platitudes
There is very little different in the way Atticus talks to his children and how he talks to adults. Put simply, he does not try and trick them with plausible, but distorted explanations or half-truths. This is how he explains it to his brother Jack:
Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults and evasion simply muddles ’em.”
Atticus teaches his children to fight with their heads not their fists
Atticus Finch forbids Scout and Jem to fight the other children in school even when they call their father a “nigger lover” for defending Tom Robinson. He tells them to fight with their “heads” meaning they should not let their anger and emotions get the better of them.
You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change…it’s a good one, even if it does resist learning.
Atticus teaches his children to act according to their consciences.
Atticus explains that it is his duty to defend Tom Robinson because his conscience dictates that he must. He expects his kids to do the same even if it means going against what the majority of the town’s white population believe is right. He tells Jem:
They’re certaintly entitled to think that [I’m wrong for defending Tom Robinson] and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions. But before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.
Atticus is a beacon of calmness.
Even parenting books today tell you to not lose your cool with your kids. You get upset, they get upset.
Throughout the novel, Atticus Finch is a beacon of wise calmness, thoughtfulness and quiet contemplation, especially when it comes to talking to his children.
A good example is when Tom Robinson is transferred to the Maycomb county jail in the town square, Atticus stands guard outside, but armed with only a lamp for reading and a book – not a gun.
His adventurous children head out to find him and arrive at the courthouse at the same time as a lynch mob of farmers arrive to exact their own justice.
While clearly distraught, he calmly implores Jem to take his sister and their friend Dill home. Even when Jem refuses, Atticus never loses his temper or shows his anxiety.
But, Atticus is also a man of action when he needs to be
There’s a scene in the book, also captured in the movie, where Atticus is forced to shoot a rabid old dog called Tim Johnson who is hobbling down the street passed everyone’s home. Atticus reluctantly takes the rifle from sheriff Heck Tate who doesn’t have the self-belief to do it himself. To everyone’s amazement, Atticus shoots the dog stone cold dead in the street.
Miss Maudie Atkinson (the Finch’s neighbour) grinned wickedly. “Well now, Mis Jean,” she said, “still think your father can’t do anything? Still ashamed of him?”
“No,” I said, meekly.
Atticus teaches his children not to judge others based on ignorance
This is a powerful message Atticus teaches his children again and again in the book, and is also a key theme of the novel – that we should not judge people based on the ignorance passed on by others.
This message is brought powerfully home in the trial of Tom Robinson, who we learn is clearly a kind and decent man whose only crime was to help a lonely, ignorant white woman and then reject her advances.
(To Jem): There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads – they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins…as you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life.
There are plenty more parenting tips you could pick up from Atticus Finch if you take the time to read the book, or perhaps re-read it as a parent – these are just a few that stood out for me.
It’s worth noting too that Harper Lee, who never married or had kids, based the character of Atticus Finch on her father, Amasa Colman Lee, a lawyer and politican who defended two black men on murder charges (they were convicted and hanged) during his career.
Lee, the youngest child, would sit in her father’s lap – like Scout does in To Kill a Mockingbird – and read the newspaper with him.
However, like Atticus (who certainly has his faults, aloofness and stubborness among them) Lee’s father was a far from perfect man.
It emerged, to the horror of some fans, when Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman was published, that Amasa Colman Lee was in fact a segrationist (though he apparently softened his views later in life and was quite forward-thinking considering where and when he grew up).
It’s a point worth remembering – no one can be a perfect parent. We can only try to be.