Courage through the ages

24th April 2015 at 01:00

A lot of my friends are into books. So when it was announced that Harper Lee would be publishing a follow-up to her 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, my Facebook feed erupted with joy. What also struck me, however, was that other friends not as conspicuously into reading were equally excited. Lee's book transcends reading habits, spurred on by its enduring popularity in schools.

I've studied To Kill a Mockingbird with senior classes, and there's something so relevant and contemporary about the way it explores and ultimately condemns prejudice. Students immediately make links between Scout's narrative and the society they are growing up in. Prejudice may have evolved but it remains prevalent.

The novel is also effective thanks to the eerie presence of Boo Radley, a menacing, other-worldly figure whom most of us will recognise. Don't we all have our own Boo Radleys growing up - neighbours we daren't speak to, houses we run past, people we stigmatise? Boo's redemption at the climax of the book is a welcome reminder that humanity can rise above discrimination. Also pertinent is the quiet courage of Mrs Dubose and Atticus Finch, which we can admire and emulate today.

Above all, To Kill a Mockingbird is a rich and diverse text that lends itself well to exam answers. The complex characterisations of Scout and Atticus contain great depth, and the motif of the mockingbird, symbolising society's weaker members, is a powerful trigger for discussion in any essay.

This novel can affect young people dramatically. Some see their own fathers or grandfathers in the wisdom and compassion of Atticus as he advises and guides his children. Others come to recognise their own Boo Radleys and regret their behaviour towards them (of course, some students may be Boo Radley figures themselves, in which case the novel takes on a different, crueller interpretation).

The strong judicial dilemma that forms the spine of the plot, with Tom Robinson appearing irrefutably innocent and yet being convicted, resonates with the sense of right and wrong keenly felt by teenagers. The most touching scene of the book, when Atticus listens on the porch as Scout asks Jem whether or not their deceased mother was pretty, and if they loved her, can move students to tears. It amplifies Atticus' courage and spirit when we see such a strong character briefly vulnerable.

Whether or not Harper Lee's new book will be similarly gripping is difficult to say, but I don't expect it to become such a mainstay in English departments. Scout Finch will be an adult, and one of the great charms in To Kill a Mockingbird is her childish innocence. It is this naivety that students find themselves drawn to year after year.

Alan Gillespie teaches English at Fernhill School in Glasgow

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