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To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee has published just a single novel, but it is one of the most beloved of all American fictions. In 1999, respondents to a LIBRARY JOURNAL poll judged Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1960) the "best novel of the century." Set almost entirely in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s, the story is narrated in hindsight by Jean Louise "Scout" Finch. It tells of three years in the childhood of Scout and her brother, Jem, under the guidance of their widower father, attorney Atticus Finch. Focused at first on youthful adventures, dreams, and fears, the tale turns to more adult matters as Atticus takes on a legal case no other local lawyer wants to touch: the defense of Tom Robinson, a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Atticus is a role model of courage in defense of personal principle and social ideals, but the thread that knits the tale runs deeper. Lee's novel, so constrained in physical scope, so often temperate in tone, unfolds to make an impassioned case on behalf of proactive empathy -- a virtue in most human circumstances, a virtual necessity in a society as diverse as America's. Its purpose is stated plainly early on, in the words of Atticus Finch to his daughter: "If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

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The American Novel