In honor of Harper Lee’s passing, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit To Kill A Mockingbird and write a little about the so-called sequel Go Set A Watchman (I say ‘so-called’ because now that Ms. Lee is dead we may never know the true story of how that book came to be written and/or published.)
I have read and re-read To Kill A Mockingbird at least a dozen times, but the best time was a few years ago when I read it out loud to my daughters who were reading it for a class. The story is engaging, but it is the language that enthralls me — I love reading with a southern drawl (my daughters complain that I read too slow — but one cannot read this book quickly — one must savor each drawn out syllable) and this book gives me ample opportunity to do that. I also loved the complexity of the characters and the layers upon layers of meaning hidden within the text. (If you want to read a beautiful essay about those layers, check out Melissa Fay Greene’s prologue to LIFE’s special edition tribute to Harper Lee. An online excerpt is here: http://time.com/3947242/life-intro-go-set-a-watchman/ and the whole essay is here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/qh1usyj14r3ppp8/LIFE–Harper%20Lee.pdf?dl=0 )
I used to be a criminal defense attorney, and have always admired Atticus’ commitment to represent those without a voice. What an inspiration . . . . but it is Scout, that little girl with a huge heart and an independent spirit beyond her size that I hope will inspire my daughters. I hope they will fight like she does and ignore convention when convention is wrong. And I hope that they will see how awful it was for people of color in the Jim Crow South, and know how far we’ve come — but also know that there are still many fights to be fought, and they can be like Scout in fighting those fights, in standing up for the underdog, in not just knowing, but living, what is right.
That may be the most important reason that To Kill A Mockingbird should be read over and over again – as a reminder of the power of speaking out. There are so many examples – my favorite is the scene where Atticus is sitting outside the jail and the lynch mob is turned back by Scout’s innocent questioning of one of the men: “’Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?’” (172-173) By the “outing” of an individual, the mob is reduced to being mere men, and they slink off, unmasked. And a child’s questioning led to it. Powerful!
As for Go Set A Watchman, I have mixed feelings. It is not as beautiful of a story (neither the language nor the narrative comes close to Mockingbird) and yet, in some ways, it is more real. That Atticus might have been racist should be no surprise; that he might have consorted with “the enemy” is perhaps a more realistic depiction of what white men did during that era. And yet –Atticus unmasked; my hero de-caped — it was hard not to come away disappointed.