When I was 12 years old I first experienced Harper Lee’s brilliant storytelling. My family had recently become enchanted with the ability to rediscover old movies at the local video store, and my mom brought home a VHS copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Gregory Peck. She told me it was a film she had seen years before, and loved, and she wanted to share it with me and my older sister.
I wasn’t used to watching black and white films, but I soon understood the charms of this particular film which so beautifully captured a child’s perspective on the segregated South. Recently, in doing a bit of research about Harper Lee, I learned that she felt the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was one of the most faithful adaptations of a novel she had ever seen.
A few months after first seeing the movie, I ordered a copy of the book from a Scholastic book catalog. At the time, some of the Southern expressions and dialect were difficult for me to follow, and I was bored by long passages about the Finch family history and details about the town of Maycomb, Alabama, but overall, the book resonated with me just as much as the movie.
I loved the adventures of Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill as they try to lure recluse Arthur “Boo” Radley out of his house, and felt the sting of their pain and disillusionment when justice is denied a falsely accused black man. I also deeply admired the courage and integrity of Scout and Jem’s father, Atticus Finch, who represented the falsely accused black man in a rape trial in the deep South in the 1930s.
In the years since then, I have reread the book several times, and it continues to move and inspire me. It is a wonderful snapshot of childhood, both whimsical and darkened by normal childhood fears and the growing understanding of injustice in the segregated South. As a writer, I have come to appreciate Harper Lee’s remarkable skill in weaving together this beautiful, entrancing story, which lays bare racism and hypocrisy without sounding pedantic. Lee’s writing is simple and straightforward and, occasionally, poetic.
Like many of her fans, I was disappointed to discover that she had never published another book. It turns out Lee, who hailed from a small town in Alabama similar to the fictional Maycomb, was so overwhelmed by the public recognition of her first book that she decided not to write again.
However, earlier this year, publisher HarperCollins announced it was publishing a book Lee wrote prior to writing “To Kill a Mockingbird,” titled, “Go Set a Watchman.” This book also centers on Scout (whose proper name is Jean Louise), now an adult in the 1950s, as she travels from her life in New York City back to Maycomb for a visit.
Soon after learning about “Go Set a Watchman,” I pre-ordered a copy, despite qualms that perhaps the elderly Lee was being exploited by her attorney after decades of avoiding publicity. In the end, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to read more of Lee’s writing, which I rationalized with the thought that Lee, 88, was perhaps willing to have the book published now, when she is old enough to be excused from responding to interview requests and other publicity.
The new book shares the same delightful writing “voice,” of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and includes descriptions of favorite childhood haunts, such as Finch’s landing, the family’s ancestral home outside of Maycomb, which are consistent in content and tone with “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Scout still has her tomboyish spirit and spunk. However, some of the other characters from her childhood are more complicated than she recalls.
While in Maycomb, Scout is disturbed by heightened racial tensions between black and white neighbors who, ostensibly, used to get along, at least at a distance. Most of all, she is devastated that Atticus, her father, is resistant to movements to desegregate schools and promote voter registration among blacks, which he views as interference from activists from the North for which the South is unready. The man she so admired for his bravery in standing up against racial injustice has become an old man who fears change. She is thoroughly disgusted. Scout spends much of “Go Set a Watchman” coming to terms with how her hometown and its inhabitants have changed, and whether she can ever return there.
As a book, “Go Set a Watchman” is much less polished than “To Kill a Mockingbird” because it was never fully completed for publication. Some characters, like Atticus, seem dramatically different between the two books, and it is possible that Lee would have reconciled differences had she been able to revise “Go Set a Watchman.”
On the other hand, one book is a reflection of a child’s view of her life and the people in it, and the other is a young woman’s view of the same people and community at a later time, in different circumstances. Often, as we age, we begin to understand that the people we once admired are more complex. And, older people, like the geriatric Atticus, are often less willing to take bold positions on controversial issues, as the circumstances of aging and health concerns make it less palatable to be at odds with one’s neighbors. These considerations, for me, softened the blow of Atticus’s racist positions.
“Go Set a Watchman” gave me a sense of closure, to learn about the direction Scout’s life would take. Like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” its writing is straightforward and beautiful. Knowing that the book was not a fully finished product, I read it with an eye toward appreciating Lee’s writing style, and learning about racial attitudes in Alabama just before the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. Just as the older Atticus is disappointing for not being the civil rights activist he might have become, Lee’s depiction of white southerners’ attitudes about desegregation show that many feared the changes that were in store, and this humanizes them. Change is difficult, after all.
As a fan, I am grateful for the opportunity to read more of Lee’s writing, which gives me a sense of knowing more about the writer herself, since Scout is an extension of Lee. “Go Set a Watchman” also shows how Scout’s (and Lee’s) moral conscience grew from her father’s influence, and bloomed into her adult sensibilities as a result of her own experiences and thoughts.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is poignant for its ethical insights, but it is delightful reading because of its vivid characters, especially Scout, a whip smart tomboy growing up motherless in a time and place where women were supposed to be perfectly composed and dainty. “Go Set a Watchman” revisits many of these wonderful characters, and shows how they have changed, for better and for worse, with the times around them. Like a visit with relatives who live far away, I was glad to see them again.