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To Kill a Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful novel of childhood. It is the tale of the Finch family of Maycomb, Alabama in the mid-1930s. Jean Louise, known as Scout, who is seven when the story commences, narrates the novel. Much of the novel is given over to the events of the lives and her 11-year-old brother Jem. The events in Maycomb take place over a year or so. Scout is looking back at this crucial time in her life from an adult perspective.

Maycomb is described as a tired old town. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop, green grass grew on the sidewalks and the courthouse sagged in the square. The summers were horrendously hot with men's stiff collars wilting by nine in the morning. Ladies by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. Townspeople took things slowly because there was little going on in their lives. It was the middle of the depression and there was little spare cash to spend on the items they gazed at in shop windows. People were generally too poor to travel so Maycomb bound their horizons.

Scout tells us about life in her home with Jem, their father Atticus and their housemaid Calpurnia. Their mother died when Scout was two. Scout describes her father as satisfactory in the best meaning of that word: he energetically played with her and Jem, read to them, and treated them with courteous detachment.

Calpurnia is "something else again." She is a proud black woman who is devoted to the Finch family. She is said to have a hand as wide as a bed slat and twice as hard. She is always ordering Scout out of the kitchen, asking her why she couldn't behave as well as Jem when she knew he was older, and calling her home when she wasn't ready to come. Their battles are epic, but Calpurnia always wins, having the support of Atticus. Atticus treats her with dignity and respect.

Lee describes Atticus' early legal career in deft strokes. He went out to Montgomery to read law and then returned to Maycomb where he began his practice. For many years he had an office in the courthouse. It contained little more than a hat rack, a spittoon, a checkerboard and an unsullied Code of Alabama.

Atticus' first two clients were the last two persons hanged in the Maycomb County jail. They had murdered a blacksmith in the presence of three witnesses. Atticus had advised them to enter into a plea bargain but they had stubbornly refused to accept his recommendation. The accused insisted that the-son-of-a-bitch-had-it-coming-to-him was a good enough defence for anybody and were duly convicted. Atticus was present at their execution and that event is described as the beginning of his profound distaste for the practice of criminal law.

Despite his inauspicious start, Atticus is clearly a talented lawyer who excels in his legal career. He has the complete trust of the citizens of Maycomb and develops a successful practice. As a pillar of the community, he is elected to the state legislature. He combines his political and legal careers with assurance.

The first half of the novel is given over to the daily activities of Scout and Jem and to their growing awareness of the wisdom that their father possesses. These chapters are a form of Blake's "Songs of Innocence." The children live in a state of innocence unaware of the full extent of the racial discrimination practiced by the majority of the townspeople. They must be introduced to the "Songs of Experience."

Scout and Jem's innocence is infiltrated by the news that Atticus has been appointed by the court to defend Tom Robinson, a young black man accused of raping and assaulting a poor white woman, Mayella Ewell. The children first come to an awareness of the racial hatred many whites possess when they find Atticus one evening positioned in front of the county jail in order to protect his client from a lynch mob that wants to see "immediate justice" done to the accused.

The trial of Tom Robinson is the pivotal event in the novel and is handled well by the author. Harper Lee's father and sister were both lawyers and she herself studied law for three years. The courtroom atmosphere and the trial participants are described in convincing fashion.

In 78 Kill A Mockingbird, Lee provides us with a quintessential Southern small-town trial. The judge looks like a sleepy old shark. He is deeply learned in the law but fires out commands and advice to witnesses in a plain, no-nonsense manner. He appears to doze off at times but is understood to be attentive to everything that is said during the trial.

Judge Taylor possesses an easy familiarity with the lawyers and calls Atticus by his first name throughout the trial. He reassures a witness that Atticus is not intending to frighten her. He clearly perceives Atticus to be a lawyer of great integrity.

Scout and Jem attend the trial and learn much in the process. Scout encounters a group of townspeople known as the Idlers Club, being people with enough spare time to attend trials on a regular basis. Several express concern that Atticus will mount a real defence on behalf of Robinson rather than simply going through the motions. They are resentful of the fact that Atticus would offer the same level of representation to a black man as he would to a white.

The rigid colour bar of Maycomb is maintained in the courtroom. Seats behind the court are reserved for whites. Black spectators must sit up in the balcony. Scout and Jem join the black spectators because all of the seats in the "white only" area have been taken up. On a symbolic level Atticus' children reveal their solidarity with Afro-Americans. They emulate their father in their enlightened views.

Atticus defends his client with considerable skill and draws out the weaknesses of the prosecution. He seizes on the glaring fact that despite the claims of rape no one has thought to call a doctor to examine Mayella. Failing to take such a basic step would seem to be a fatal error. Atticus also destroys the credibility of the victim's father, who claims to be an eyewitness. Bob Ewell is shown to possess an implacable hatred for the black race and to be prepared to lie in order to bolster the rape claim.

Despite his valiant efforts in the trial, Atticus is unable to prevent Mayella from uttering a challenge to the jurors. She cries out, "That nigger yonder took advantage of me an' if you fine fancy gentlemen don't wanta' do nothin' about it then you're all yellow stinkin' cowards ... Your fancy airs don't come to nothin'."

Mayella appeals to the Southern code that requires white men to come to the assistance of a white woman who accuses a black man of rape. Robinson is found guilty by the jury and sentenced to a stiff prison term.

Atticus has taught his children that it is necessary to do all one can for their fellow citizens, especially those who are discriminated against because of their race. Scout and Jem are justifiably proud of their father and share his commitment to racial equality. When Atticus is spat upon and threatened with murder by Bob Ewell shortly after the trial, Scout comes to learn that a commitment to equality for Afro-Americans in the South requires great courage and determination.

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Robert Normey is a lawyer with the Constitutional and Aboriginal Law Branch of Alberta Justice in Edmonton, Alberta.
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Title Annotation:law and literature
Author:Normey, Robert
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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