I have just finished the first book off my Summer Reading List* and want to share some of my thoughts from reading it. Please note that I have not done any research on this book (although I know it's been written about by many people) so the observations below are probably very old hat by now. So pardon my naivety. Also, spoilers.
"Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird," says Atticus to his son, Jem, upon giving him and his sister, Scout, air-rifles. Miss Maudie, Scout and Jem's kind neighbor, agrees, "Your father's right... Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." Hence the title of the famous 1960 novel by Harper Lee.
The story unfolds with Scout remembering when Jem's arm was broken when he was 13 and she only nine. That climactic moment does not happen until the end of the story, however. First we hear about Dill, Scout and Jem's childhood friend; Boo Radley, the neighborhood hermit who Dill, Scout and Jem obsess over for several summers; and Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping a white girl and the man whom Atticus is charged with defending.
Scout is very young during the Robinson case, but she takes it all in even if she doesn't always understand. The thing about Scout is that she's been taught since she was very young that in order to fully understand, you have to put yourself in someone else's shoes. Atticus is very good about this, and it's clear that it's something he is trying to pass on to his two children. "Jem," he says after a particularly nasty incident, "See if you can stand in Bob Ewell's shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell [the girl who claimed to have been raped] one extra beating, that's something I'll gladly take. He had to take it out on somebody and I'd rather it be me than that houseful of children out there. You understand?"
There are other adult role models for Jem and Scout who also exemplify the art of perspective. Calpurnia, when she takes the children to her own church and they hear her speaking differently than she does at home, is able to explain the situation from her fellow church-goers point-of-view. "It's not necessary to tell all you know. It's not ladylike - in the second place, folks don't like to have somebody around knowin' more than they do. It aggravates 'em. You're not gonna change any of them by talkin' right, they've got to want to learn themselves, and when they don't want to learn there's nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language."
Since the book is written from Scout's perspective, we, as the reader, often understand things that she does not. But we can see her thought process and throughout the book she begins to learn from her father's wise words. For example, as she is listening to the testimonies of Mayella Ewell and Tom Robinson, she says, "it came to me that Mayella Ewell must have been the loneliest person in the world... Tom Robinson was probably the only person who was ever decent to her." In trying to see the case from Mayella's perspective, she begins to understand the reasoning behind Mayella's actions. As I said earlier, however, she is still very young at this point, but she is learning.
At the very end, she has the opportunity to stand almost literally in someone else's shoes by seeing her town from Boo Radley's porch, and in doing so she watches the events from the years gone by from his perspective. And understanding finally dawns. "Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough." She walks away from that porch knowing in that moment, she had learned one of the most important lessons of growing up. "[T]here wasn't much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra."
Algebra may be hard, but seeing life from a perspective besides your own is a skill that may take a lifetime or more. In fact, many people never do and are never able to fully understand. The fullest understanding of anything - life, love, grief - only comes when you are able to see it through another's eyes, or as Atticus says, walk in their shoes.
*Actually, I finished it a while ago and kept forgetting to put up this post!