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Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Help vrs. To Kill a Mockingbird

I did not read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. Not only is the book often listed as the greatest work of legal fiction ever produced in any medium, many of my lawyer friends were disgusted that I had not read the book. So, I read it.

I related to one of my friends who was a great fan of the book that I found it to be a pleasant read, an appropriate novel for high school students, but not particularly interesting, largely due to how much it hits you over the head with its anti-racism message. A message I agree with, but did not find especially enlightening. She felt my assessment was off and pointed to The Help as an example of a pleasant read with a hit-you-over-the-head anti-racism message. As it happened, someone had just loaned me The Help, so I gave it a read. My lawyer friend was right, I had sold To Kill a Mockingbird short. Although it is not a particularly literary novel, it is great in a way that The Help is not.

Given my skepticism going into reading both of these novels, I want to be clear that I in fact liked them both quite a bit. I cared about the characters; I was interested in the plot. I read both while riding the bus to and from work, and missed my stop twice, once while being caught up in each novel. It is just that I generally like fiction that makes you think, and I didn't see that in these books--in To Kill a Mockingbird at least in part due to the over hype from my friends, and in The Help because I don't think it was there.

Both novels share the theme that the segregated South was evil, but not everyone within the segregated South was evil. To Kill a Mockingbird, however, tells a much more complex and organic story. Consider the villains in each story. The primary villain in The Help is a privileged bitch who you are happy to see get hers at various times in the book. Although the author takes a shot at the very end to show that the villain is pitiful, you never feel any pity for her. By contrast, the worst of the worst in To Kill a Mockingbird are the ultra poor white trash, one an abusive father and the other an abused daughter who allows her lover to be charged with rape. Are they evil? Hell, yes. But your feelings toward them are more complex. Like the real villains we meet in the world, you recognize that they are a product of their environment.

Similarly, both novels have heroes who are themselves a product of the South. But, the hero in The Help seems to not belong there. Here hair is abused by the atmosphere; she's too independent; she doesn't fit in. To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch, by contrast, is a good shot with a rifle and a good father. He raises his children to respect others in accordance with Southern mores, even the bigots. He simply does his job with quiet integrity. Likewise, the revelation toward the end of To Kill a Mockingbird of other sympathetic Southerners is more organic than the counterpart in The Help.

In the end, the story in To Kill a Mockingbird is nuanced enough that I can understand the desire to read it a second time. On the other hand, while I enjoyed reading The Help, to reread it, I suspect, would be akin to watching a rerun.

NOTE: I think that it is fair to compare the two books given their similar themes and the multiple references to To Kill a Mockingbird in The Help.