It is doubtful that Harper Lee understood the impact of her novel To Kill a Mockingbird would have on American thought and culture. Yet the book remains in print 60 years after its original publication and has been taught and debated in school since its initial publication in 1960.
The story is told by Scout Finch - a 6-8-year old tomboy raised by her widowed father Atticus in the small fictious town of Maycomb, AL in the 1930s. It is a story of life and morality in the rural south of the depression. Scout and her brother Jem learn about life from their father - an idealistic lawyer assigned to defend Tom Robinson - a local black man accused of raping and beating a white woman. Atticus does not shrink from his duty and delivers a convincing defense, even though he faces the anger of many of the racist townspeople. It is a lost cause that he faces unflinchingly because it is the right thing to do.
Woven through this racial drama is the story of Boo Radley - the silent (presumably autistic) neighbor who never leaves his house. Neighborhood children are fascinated and afraid of this mysterious invisible presence in their town.
But it is much more than these stories. It is about family and community relationships; and the expectations of gender roles; and why people hate one another.
Atticus is among the most noble heroes in literature. Not only does he take on an unpopular position - standing up for black rights in the deep south of the last century - but he refuses to judge his persecutors. He repeatedly turns the other cheek to those who attack him. In Atticus's own words:
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
Maycomb is divided into a caste system: The educated whites, the poor whites, and the blacks live separately, and each group is suspicious of the other with many finding faults with those outside their group. But Atticus does not see the world this way. He tries to understand the world through the experiences of others, and he tries to teach this to his children. Scout and Jem learn to accept those different from themselves. They lose their childhood innocence when they experience the hatred and prejudice of the community for the first time; but they are elevated by the idealism and integrity of their father, who teaches them tolerance and empathy.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a timeless morality tale! It is the story of injustice and intolerance and tolerance and morality and courage and gender roles. It is a coming-of-age novel.