Return to Maycomb County: Reading To Kill A Mockingbird as an Adult


I’ve just had a delightful couple of days in the company of Jem, Dill, Atticus and Scout.

Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, was released this week and I’ve been getting ready for it by re-reading her 1960 classic (and prequel), To Kill a Mockingbird.

Mockingbird is my favourite book of all time. I’ve only read it once – as a child – so its effect on me was obviously quite profound.

I’ve been a little apprehensive to re-read it just in case it didn’t meet my adult expectations for a “great novel”.

I needn’t have worried.

Reading To Kill A Mockingbird as an adult. Glasses required.

Reading To Kill A Mockingbird as an adult. Glasses required.

Reading Mockingbird as an adult has been a wonderful experience. I’d forgotten most of the detail so just had the emotional hook and the main points as guides.

Small town. American south. Scout. Tomboy. Big brother Jem. Atticus. Father. Lawyer. Calpurnia. Good black folk. Black man on trial for alleged rape of white girl. Racism. Injustice. Boo Radley. Ham costume. Evil po’ white folks.

Plus, Dill (Read: Truman Capote) as the original cabbage patch doll.

While I remembered the story being a cracker, I’d forgotten how wonderful the writing is. It’s Lee’s storytelling and use of the southern vernacular that brings the town of Maycomb and its characters to life. Gender, race, and class. Truth, prejudice and justice. Big universal themes are presented in such an accessible way – through the eyes of a child.

While Atticus provides the moral compass of the story, the reader is really along for the ride with eight-year-old Scout as she navigates a world that doesn’t make sense – where people say one thing and then do another, where otherwise good folk treat others poorly. She sees hypocrisy. She says when things aren’t fair. She says when things aren’t true. She has the wide eyes and the voice of innocence.

I don’t think I’m alone in recognising that voice as one that pops up whenever prejudice or injustice shows up in the world but not having the courage to speak it. But, through the actions of her father and brother, Scout discovers what it is to live with courage and integrity – how to play fair in an unfair world.

On re-reading, I found Mockingbird’s greatest gift to the reader is its overarching theme of empathy – understanding the world and having compassion for our fellow human beings by looking at things from a different perspective, by walking in their shoes.

It did make me wonder if more of our contemporary popular culture embraced this theme, how different the world could be …

So, what questions does Mockingbird leave open? What do I hope may be answered when Scout returns to Maycomb 20 years later in Go Set a Watchman?

  • What happens to Scout? Does she continue wearing her overalls? There has always been the assumption that Scout is based on the childhood experiences of Harper Lee – that Scout is a young Harper Lee. And therefore we know what happens to Scout – she grows up to write a best-selling novel, loved by millions. But in interview, Harper Lee has been quoted as saying the character she most identifies with is Boo Radley. Perhaps she was being cheeky but her lifetime out of the public eye seems to indicate she was being sincere. So what did happen to Scout?
  • Did Jem become a lawyer?
  • Does Dill come back to Maycomb as a famous – and rather, um, flamboyant – writer thus introducing a new walk-in-my-shoes theme examining homophobia?
  • Does Boo Radley ever come out doors? In Mockingbird, Scout says she never sees Boo again but perhaps he moved to Florida.
  • And, okay, [spoiler ahead] how on earth does Atticus become a member of the KKK?

I have fairly low expectations of Go Set a Watchman. It was Lee’s initial rejected manuscript (which isn’t such a big deal) but has apparently been published as originally written, with only a light edit (which IS a big deal). I’m now more interested in reading Watchman to gain further insight into Mockingbird, rather than as a novel in its own right. So no matter what it’s like, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.

And, okay, I am sort of looking forward to returning to Maycomb County and catching up with Scout and Atticus and Jem and Dill again.