To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I think this was my third time through reading this book. I guess I don’t have much more to say than has already been said – it’s a classic, a slice of American history, and very well-written, steeped in setting and character, blending seriousness and humor. But I wanted to share my thoughts in the context of re-reading this book in order to teach it in the fall to sophomores.

1. I have mixed feelings about this book being in the canon. First of all, this is the only book I’ll be teaching next year written by a woman. That in and of itself helps it fight for its place in the curriculum. But is this book still relevant? I remember reading it in high school and feeling pretty “woke” after — this is a kid growing up in a small, predominantly white Iowa town, much like the one where I’ll be teaching next year. Maybe it’s good for talking about the history of racism and discrimination in the larger context of history, especially when pulling in modern ties to the Black Lives Matter movement, but if one is teaching this with students of color, what will they really get out of it? They know the legacy of racism in this country.

2. I never realized the uncertainty and fluctuation in the voice of the narrator before. Sometimes, like in the opening paragraphs, it is clearly adult Scout remembering these events. But then later the narrator denies the reader certain understandings because young Scout would not have understood (though we can make assumptions as adults). But the inconsistent zooming in and out of time and experience was a lot more obvious this time around. Not sure if I like it, if it was effective overall, etc.

3. I don’t like the part where Calpurnia explains why she speaks “proper English” with white people and her dialect with her black church congregation. It makes sense I guess, in terms of the story, but it seems like an argument for “Code Switching” theory in education (we teach kids to talk one way at school and one way at home, instead of welcoming and celebrating dialect and realizing that we hold speakers and writers to different standards — obviously the latter is more progressive).

4. So, nobody was going to do anything about the rape victim in in this story? When I first read this story, I hated Mayella, and I condemned her for lying and putting Tom’s life at risk. I vowed that if I was in a similar situation I would have told the truth no matter how much I’d be punished at home by my father. Maybe I missed it the first time, but it’s clear in the story that Mayella is a victim of her father’s incestuous rape, an ongoing traumatic abuse. Even when it’s clear she’s lying, this time around I hated Atticus for cross-examining and not believing a rape victim’s story, even though she was not raped by Tom but by her father. And at the end, she just goes back into that house to continue to be violated and we as readers are supposed to accept that as “Ewells will be Ewells” and assume she kind of deserves it because she was racist and lied, and was, maybe, overly sexual by trying to seduce a married man. So, slut gets what she deserves. Did anyone ever consider walking a mile in Mayella’s shoes? Atticus is willing to put it all on the line to defend Tom, but who is going to save Mayella?

Overall, I very much enjoyed this re-read, and I’m excited to teach it. However, looking at this text with the fresh eyes of 10 years teaching experience and an MA in English Education, I have a lot more questions now than answers.

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