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America’s favourite novel still vital after 50 years

It was a book that captured the world’s imagination, revealing in print the racial crisis facing the Deep South.

Tomorrow, on the 50th anniversary of its release, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is back in the bestseller charts, with two special editions published to commemorate the event.

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is at number 14 in the Neilsen Bookscan chart, entering the top 20 for the first time since 1960.

Mockingbird has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 40 languages. It frequently tops polls to find America’s favourite novel, even being branded best novel of the century in a survey by the Library Journal.

The passage of five decades, and significant – if not complete – improvements in racial integration have given the novel fresh appeal and a sales drive.

Kate Elton, from Random House, which has released the two anniversary books, said: “It’s wonderful to see this abiding classic back in the charts on the 50th anniversary of its first publication. To Kill A Mockingbird has moved and inspired millions of people the world over and the enthusiasm with which readers have embraced the anniversary demonstrates that it’s just as relevant and powerful a book today as it was 50 years ago.”

Scottish academic Isobel Murray, an honorary research professor at Aberdeen University, agreed.

She said: “The book and the film are so important and they haven’t lost their relevance.

“When the book was published, the American Civil rights were a mess and now we have a black president in America.

“But issues of race are important to everyone across the world and I think schools should still be reading it.”

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the 1930s Deep South, in a fictitious small town called Maycomb, based around Lee’s hometown of Monroeville.

Details of the novel suggest it may be partly autobiographical. Like her creator, the novel’s six-year-old heroine Scout is the daughter of a respected small-town Alabama attorney and single parent.

Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation, takes on the case of Tom Robinson, an innocent black man (and symbolic mockingbird) accused of the rape of a poor white girl, Mayella Ewell, who has been abused by her racist father Bob.

Finch loses the case despite having a powerful defence and has to accept the guilty verdict given by the all-white jury.

The story is told from the perspective of an adult Scout, who has watched the trial with her brother Jem and friend Dill. The latter is said to be modelled on Lee’s friend and author Truman Capote.

Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film adaptation was listed in America’s National Film Registry in 1995.

It ranks 25th on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American movies of all time, and top of the list of best courtroom films.

In 2003, the institute named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century. The film, which won three Oscars including best actor for Peck, also marked the big-screen debut of Robert Duvall, who played town bogeyman Boo Radley.

However, the author herself still craves anonymity. Lee, now 84 and living in Monroeville, Alabama, and New York, did not publish a sequel, is rarely seen in public, and has not given an interview since the sixties, preferring to let the novel do the talking.

A modern classic that has echoes of Austen

COMMENT: By Rosemary Goring, Literary Editor

Harper Lee’s ambition, she once confessed, was to be the Jane Austen of South Alabama.

While To Kill a Mockingbird is very different in tone and style to an Austen novel – notably in its fizzing plot and child’s-eye perspective – some of its finest qualities carry echoes of the English writer.

One of the reasons it has gained such popularity is the deceptive simplicity of its telling, and the acuteness with which it criticises its targets.

In tackling racial prejudice in an era as recent as the Great Depression, Harper Lee was taking a swing at all the authorities, from church to state.

Even the law, in the form of a blinkered jury, was shown to be an ass.

And while the dark issues the novel raises were located in the Deep South, their significance is very obviously universal.

Part of what makes To Kill a Mockingbird a classic is how elegantly but vividly Lee explores its central idea, namely that one’s moral convictions are worth fighting for, even at the risk of being reviled.

Above all, however, it is the beguiling voice of her six-year-old heroine Scout that gives this novel its undying charm.

One of the youngest and most appealing heroines in literature, her tomboyish persona made her unique for her times, and very modern today.

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