The NPR segments, the written reviews, and the blog posts have ended about Harper Lee’s latest book Go Set a Watchman. It’s been almost two months since the book was released and I am finally sitting down to write my own review. I finished the book a month ago, but as I mentioned in my last post, time and other demands have pushed blog writing to the back burner.
When I first heard that another book by Harper Lee was going to be published, excitement filled me. For the last three years I have taught To Kill a Mockingbird to seventh graders. I often speculated, “I think there will be another book.” My theory was that she had written a sequel years ago, but had strict stipulations that the book could not be published until after her death. She didn’t like all of the publicity that she received from TKAM so it seemed only natural that she would not want to endure this again.
Like many readers who love TKAM, I eagerly awaited July 14. In the two weeks leading up to the date, reviews and excerpts from the book were released to whet our appetites. Sadly, the reviews felt like a death blow to those of us who consider Atticus Finch to be our personal hero. The buzz shifted. Now the question was, “Will you or won’t you read the book?”
I chose to read the book and am glad I did.
I in no way want to compare myself to Harper Lee as a writer. But the timing of this book and the work on my own book seemed uncanny. Over the course of the summer, I plugged away at my chapters and ended the summer with a completed draft of my book. Definitely a good feeling. Yet, I still have solid work in front of me. The slow, careful process of rewriting and editing will consume my fall. Eventually I will send my manuscript to my editor and she will take a look at it. More rewriting will ensue.
The story behind GSAW is that this book was Lee’s first draft. Apparently, this is what she originally submitted to her editor. And it was her editor (Thank God for good editors!) who saw a nugget of a story and urged her to rewrite the book, with a much-younger Scout telling a love story of family and community. All of us who have read TKAM should be forever grateful. We have the gift of a novel that continues to inspire and challenge readers of all ages. And those of us who write or teach writing or want to be better writers can appreciate the realities of rewriting and revising even more. Even the best—including Lee—must do it.
Then there is Atticus. How do we reconcile the virtuous character in TKAM with the bigot in GSAW? Even his own daughter becomes physically ill when she realizes this! How to deal with the cognitive dissonance?
It requires a level of compartmentalization on the part of the reader. The Atticus we meet in TKAM speaks truth and models morally upright living. In Atticus’s closing statement to the jury he reminds us that we must see beyond the color of a person’s skin and examine the facts of a case. Furthermore, to categorize a group of people as “all liars” or “all basically immoral” is unfair and plain wrong. Period. While I am dismayed by Atticus’ comments about African Americans in GSAW, it doesn’t diminish the truth found in the pages of TKAM. If anything, his remarks reveal how complex and complicated we are as human beings. We are inconsistent, fallen creatures. In real life, we see this played out in own lives and in the lives of the people we love. They make mistakes. They are mistaken. A central theme in GSAW is Scout’s realization that the people she loves aren’t perfect. This doesn’t mean that I like what I read. It’s hard to accept. But my sense is that complicated Atticus is much more like real life than we sometimes want to admit.
As I think ahead to the spring and the passing out of brand-new copies of TKAM to my students, I imagine a few of them will have read GSAW or at least heard about it. They will have questions. Seventh graders by nature see life in black and white. My hope is that thoughtful and insightful conversations will ensue as we wrestle with characters who disappoint or anger us. Perhaps our discussions will bear a new kind of fruit. How do we love others with whom we disagree?
On a lighter note, I am glad I read GSAW because I rarely laugh out-loud when I read and there was a scene that had me cackling loudly. Without giving too much away, Jean Louise attends her first high school dance and experiences a disaster with her “falsies.” Reading this scene made me love Lee’s writing all the more because I was alongside Jean Louise in that moment—wanting to impress and fit in with the rest of crowd. Some experiences are universal and good literature reminds us of that truth.
Finally, if you haven’t read TKAM, you need to. Start with this novel. Then, if your curiosity is piqued, read GSAW, keeping in mind the above.
Blessings on your week.