As luck would have it, the 50th year anniversary of Harper Lee’s sole, yet widely read, novel To Kill A Mockingbird dovetailed nicely with Father’s Day this year. I say luckily because even when I first read this book as a 16 year old, I knew that in reading about one of the central characters, a taciturn and principled Southern lawyer who takes an impossible, unwinnable case — was more than just a character. Atticus Finch was a colossus, with a humility that belies his true strength. And most importantly, he was a dedicated father.
In the book, Atticus Finch is charged with defending Tom Robinson, a black man in the rural South caught in a cultural trap. Tom takes pity on a white woman, lonely and downtrodden as she is, and desperate for affection. He is locked in an unwanted embrace, is caught by her father, and later, accused of rape. In the South of the 1930s, the facts of the case are immaterial to the cultural biases that inform the opinions of the townsfolk, and the jury. Tom is guilty, because the society of which he is a part demands that he must be.
Atticus Finch takes the case to defend Tom Robinson, despite its futility. He takes it because of his belief in the law and in justice. He takes it because of his deep sense of humanity. And he takes it because of his children, that he knows must be shown that the right thing is not always the easy thing, and that the world is a place where one must, in the face of injustice and prejudice, take a stand regardless of how the outcome may be.
In reading the story for the first time, the figure of Atticus Finch leapt out at me as a living, breathing man. He was not heroic in the standard adventure story sense. But his integrity and inner strength shone out like a beacon. When the story was over, his resolve, his indomitable leadership remained like an afterglow.
In the light of becoming a father myself, Atticus’ example remained. I’d re-read the story many times by then, struck by his gentle manner, his stern but fair hand when it came to discipline, and by his courage in facing the insurmountable odds as a way of teaching his children that even when the world is unfair, cruel, it is still paramount to retain one’s dignity, and to ensure the dignity of others, too.
And what other lessons are we to teach our children than this? That the world can be cruel, and that the attitudes and ideas that people hold can be used as a means of causing others pain. But, that holding one’s principles to defend others, and to preserve the humanity of all, even those who would call themselves your enemies, is what it means to be vessels of justice, and agents of a better world.
“To Kill a Mockingbird (front) Ebsen Thomsen @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.