Unlike a huge percentage of Americans my age, I never read this book in school. I read widely outside of school, of course, including in the Classics section of the library when I ran out of books in the YA section, but for whatever reason I never picked up TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and the things I heard about it didn't make it seem all that appealing, when I could be sneaking over to the Adult Fiction section and reading Bujold and McKinley instead. But my dad handed me his copy a while back (before the pandemic began, so... who knows when, time is a flat circle). He wanted to know what I thought of it, and now that I'm packing up to move again, I finally sat down to read it in order to give the book back to him instead of carrying it around in a box. Books are heavy.
My conclusion: TKAM is a gorgeous, layered fabrication of white innocence in the apartheid American South. Lee puts us in the mind of a young white girl--the most innocent of character types--through whose eyes we see her father, a white male lawyer who happened to do his job, as the most heroic figure in the story. Somehow this story about racism against Black people is all about white people. The villains are white, the gossipy bystanders are white, the strange recluse who guards over the children is white--each and every hero who takes decisive anti-racist action and saves the day is white. Atticus, Boo Radley, the Cunninghams, the ladies of the town, Jem and Scout and Dill, everyone who matters in the story, good and bad, is white. Scout, the audience's host guiding us through the story, is the most innocent and good of them all, and so, spending time in her perspective, the white reader can identify with the 'good' Southern white middle class and therefore feel good about, and distant from, our American inheritance, without having to change a thing in the present.
I loved this book--the prose is fantastic, the characters are vivid and larger than life but still authentic, the plot advances perfectly in a way both leisurely and tense, and the tenor of childhood in a small town glows with nostalgia and affection--but it is unquestionably deeply flawed on a moral level. It is a tool for keeping the white middle class complacent and comfortable and feeling as though they have achieved the status of hero if they simply silently think disapprovingly of the vicious, fatal racism happening right in front of them.
It's hard to say that this book is good. It's a book that many people have read, and if you read this in school, it seems to me that it's worth re-reading as an adult with a critical eye and questions in hand, foremost: what is this book doing for whiteness?