“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

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It is a common happening that school teachers make us read Harper Lee’s work of art, To Kill a Mockingbird, at the age of ten to twelve, when we are more interested in counting down the minutes left until the end of class than thinking about the genuine depth of the emotionally shattering narrative developed in the ingenuous words of Scout. If this is your case, take my advice and read it again. To Kill a Mockingbird is little Jean Louise Finch’s story of her coming-of-age; her coming into the age of human cruelty and revolting injustice that is the world of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s. It is the story of the unconditional love she vows to her father, Atticus Finch, whose unwavering righteousness comes near to quiet heroism as he takes on the defence of a black man in court against the word of a white man. It is the story of preserving a child’s humanity in the midst of a society that has displaced its sense of right and wrong. A society that aches from a vulgar lack of compassion. A society where the most vulnerable is perpetually attacked.

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Gregory Peck and Brock Peters, from the 1962 adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird

And yet Harper Lee’s work is very much tender, warm, affectionate. Atticus’s enduring faith in mankind comes as a flash of hope to end the novel as he tells Scout: “Most people are (nice), when you finally see them”. Atticus forgives – and he teaches us to do the same. It is a beautiful tribute that Lee pays to those who, like Scout’s father, are glimmers of persevering truth even among the great – grotesque? – human comedy. No more needs be said, take my advice: read it again.

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