To Kill a Mockingbird

As Harper Lee publishes her second book, we find out why Northern Irish bookworms voted her debut their favourite read in 2007

Richard and Judy’s book club may send recommendations hurtling to the top of the bestseller’s list faster than you can say 'Da Vinci', but none of the daytime duo’s choices made it into top ten list of the UK’s most treasured tomes this year.

Voting in the World Book Day online poll 2007, all the countries of the UK agreed that Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice deserved the number one slot. All but one: Northern Ireland consigned Austen to second place and chose instead Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, an important novel of the 20th century, and one with a haunting significance in Northern Ireland.

Lee’s classic novel, set in 1930s small town America, deals with dangers within a divided society. As black laborer Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white girl it is up to lawyer Atticus Finch – played superbly in the Hollywood adaptation of Lee's book by Gregory Peck – to defend the innocent man and protect him from the bigoted crowds baying for bloody revenge.

In the background, the Great Depression has America on its knees – scapegoats are needed on the world stage as in rural communities. To Kill A Mockingbird, then, is the story of a fractured society at war with itself. It is an incredibly powerful allegory, a call for courage, equality and justice in times of financial hardship and racial segregation and discrimination.

The book's shocking depiction of the unlawfulness and violence that can arise when prejudice and intolerance reign, even in democracies like the United States of America, has evidently struck a chord among Northern Irish readers, for obvious reasons. People in Northern Ireland are all too aware of how divisions in society can lead to mayhem. 

In the book, the character Maudie Atkinson claims that ‘sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of another'. With the worst of the Troubles fresh in many memories in Northern Ireland – where men of extreme views often used the Bible to justify foul deeds – such lines from literature carry weight.

Northern Ireland's differing literary preference from the rest of the UK is a telling one in this instance. Pride and Prejudice is a great novel – a book also written by a woman, tellingly. It is a story full of humour and social commentary, focussing on the class system and the differences that existed at the time between the sexes. Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird is that book's rough and ready cousin.

To Kill a Mockingbird also depicts a society divided along class and gender lines, but deals with the centuries-old issue of race too. It leaves the comfortable aesthetics of Victorian England behind for the earthy environs of the American South, revealing the ugliness of the modern world in an attempt to shock the reader into action.

Lee understood that, in order to heal society, divides need to be bridged, not perpetuated through enduring customs and social mores. She knew that it takes respect for others, belief in decency, and above all, courage, to change the world. As Atticus Finch, one of her strongest characters, declares: 'I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun.'

World Book Day Online poll results (NI)
1 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
3 The Bible
4 Tess of the d'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
5 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
6 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
7 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
8 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
9 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
10 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott