Saturday, July 17, 2010

Remembering Atticus

One of the cultural highlights in the U.S. during the summer of 2010 is the calendar of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the classic American novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.  From Birmingham to Boston and Plano to Pasadena, fans of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning book are turning out in communities of all sizes to read passages from the story, discuss its themes and screen the 1962 motion picture that was based on the novel.

Set in a small Alabama town during the Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird is a story narrated by nine year-old Scout Finch, and centers around a series of life-changing events experienced by Scout, her brother Jem, and their father Atticus.  Although there are a variety of sub-plots throughout the novel, the centerpiece is the arrest and trial of a young black man accused of raping a white woman.  Atticus is called upon to represent the defendant and, in the span of a few hundred pages, he becomes one of the great heroes of American literature for standing up for what he knows to be right, regardless of the majority opinion in his community.

"The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience," Atticus tells Scout.

As a novelist, Lee employs a fascinating technique by writing a piece of fiction that explores major social themes, but doing so through the eyes of a child. The result is a tender, compelling story that challenges us to think about very grown-up ideas regarding race, class, justice and what it means to be a good neighbor.

The title of the book is a bit perplexing when you first crack it open, but it begins to gain focus when we learn that Atticus gives Jem a BB gun for his 10th birthday.  His admonition to Jem is that he's welcome to shoot at all the blue jays he wants, but tells him not to shoot at the mockingbirds.  Why?  Because all they do is sing their songs and don't harm anyone or anything.  Scout recalls this metaphor in the emotionally powerful closing scenes of the novel.

There may be nothing more personally immoral nor socially destructive than hurting other human beings simply because they are different.  This is the moral war we wage against terrorism in the world today, it is a question with which we must struggle in addressing our broken U.S. immigration policy, and unfortunately it is still a relevant theme in American communities fractured by racism and other social divisions.

To Kill A Mockingbird is American art at its finest because it entertains, enlightens, challenges and -- perhaps most of all -- shows us a path toward a better way.  When we take a stand against injustice and chart an alternative course that is guided by the simple value of peaceful coexistence, we put in place a new social foundation that better supports the pursuit of those great American ideals: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Among the many life lessons that Atticus tries to teach his children is this gem: "Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It's knowing you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do."

Here's to Atticus . . . and to the development of more courage in the world over the next 50 years.

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