Mockingbird: Fighting the Good Fight

We Big Readers committed the big sin over the past two nights: we saw the movie in lieu of reading the book. Waterbury is participating in The Big Read with Harper Lee's novel set during the Depression To Kill a Mockingbird. This is a story about fear and its attendant gremlins, bigotry and violence. Lee weaves together the story of Southern lawyer Atticus Finch's defense of an African American man unjustly accused of raping a white woman and the story Scout Finch's choice of compassion over cruelty as she overcomes her fear of the unknown neighbor Boo Radley.

My eight-year-old daughter spotted the book at Atticus bookstore in New Haven on Sunday and remarked that everyone in Waterbury is supposed to read it. I thought of getting a copy and reading it with her, but the old movie junkie in me thought Gregory Peck should have the honor of teaching my daughter that cool reason, common humanity, and basic decency can come together in a person, and such a person can become a conscience of a world in dire need of change.

The movie films the story from the point-of-view of a child, and the child's horror becomes Gothic in its presentation. Overwhelming, pervasive, unreasonable, violent is Robert E. Lee "Bob" Ewell. His daughter Mayella is likewise unreasonable and violent, and her repressed and distorted passions likewise sicken her mind. These are bloodthirsty people looking for a scapegoat for their frustrations and limitations. They latch onto the decent black man Tom Robinson, who has the nerve to tell the court he helped Mayella because he felt sorry for her, and destroy his life that they might be free of their sense of responsibility for their own behavior.

Robinson's stating he felt sorry for Mayella seals his fate, and no amount of reasoning by Atticus is going to free Tom from the chains of bigotry and hatred. Tom realizes this, too, and breaks free when he gets the chance. Atticus's desire to appeal the verdict is a dim light of hope, Tom knows. Better to take his fate in his own hands and be shot down running than meekly to hand it over to a system out to destroy him anyway.

Nevertheless, Ewell's blood lust is not satisfied, and he goes after Atticus's kids. Bullies don't quit, after all; they thrive on finding enemies. Here the story lines merge. As Tom's story has unfolded, so has the Finch children's fear of and fascination with Boo, a strong, private neighbor who is in some way mentally handicapped. Jem and Scout make the most of opportunities to rap his door and run and torment him in other ways. They have done it because they could and because they were besting their own fears. They were also being cruel to a man who left trinkets for them in the tree between the houses and who never disturbed them. Boo saves the children from Ewell and then kills him.

Nobody bats an eye--except Atticus, who believes momentarily that his son had killed the bigot--at the news that Ewell is dead. In the context of this small Southern town, this eye-for-an-eye justice seems as necessary as shooting a rabid dog--a task Atticus completes early in the movie. It is effective, to be sure, but it is not the reasoned justice of Atticus Finch. So be it.

Ewell will be back in the form of other bigots and, as Lee points out, those bigots might appear on the playground or in the boardroom or in your backyard just because they can. What are you going to do?

My daughter and I were discussing this in the car today. It's almost impossible for us to make sense of bullies and bigots and others who are just plain mean because they just plain can be. My daughter has encountered them vicariously on the playground. One of her friends is the perennial target of the name-callers. Every time this problem emerges, my daughter and the girl's other friends push the point with the adults around them until this little girl is accorded the respect she deserves as a human being.

What else can you do? You keep fighting the good fight. Even if the bad guys are never completely gone, we can know the good guys are in our corner. That counts for a lot.

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