Happy 50th birthday to the most enduring and important novel of the 20th century: To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic story of courage and a miscarriage of social justice in a southern U.S. town in the mid-thirties.
Why the most enduring? It was published on July 11, 1960 and has never been out of print. It’s now in its 5,000th printing.
Why the most important? It was voted by British librarians, surely the world’s most demanding critics, as the one book adults should read before they die. And that includes the Bible.
I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 10, just four years older than the novel’s spunky little narrator, Scout Finch. Scout is a miracle, as is the story itself. And if you haven’t read it, I suggest you waste no time. Like millions of us, you’ll never be the same.
Lee’s most compelling creation is Scout’s father, Atticus, the small-town lawyer who defines courage in a way that still sends shivers down my back: “When you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what."
It’s an old-fashioned sentiment, the same way truth, beauty and love are old-fashioned sentiments. The book has plenty of those qualities, but at its core is the decency of Atticus Finch, who, despite the town’s disapproval, staunchly defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, Although Atticus skillfully reveals the woman is lying, Tom is convicted anyway, and is later shot trying to escape custody. There’s nothing easy about To Kill a Mockingbird.
In her gentle, even genteel way, Harper generates a thirst for social justice that helped define a generation of Boomers. Maybe it’s the book itself -- more likely it’s the 1962 Oscar-winning movie, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus -- but its resolute defense of decency resonates today. Especially today, when decency is discounted and cheap sentiment prevails.
Exhibit A: Twilight, in which a photogenic vampire yearn to play tonsil hockey with a mortal teen but the boy vampire resists in order to spare his young love the consequence: an immortal allergy to garlic. Love bites.
When life gets hard and confusing, I have a tendency to drift. All I need to get my compass reset is to pay a visit to Atticus, Scout and Boo Radley.
In a way, even though Maycomb, Alabama is a million miles from where I grew up, it’s like going home again.
Paul Sullivan is a Vancouver-based journalist and owner of Sullivan Media Consulting;