Saturday, July 18, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird - And Revitalize a Brand

My original review of To Kill a Mockingbird

Updated review: It was all a dream, Atticus NEVER read Word Up Magazine.

So in case you haven't heard, and of course you have, Harper Lee has a "new" book out.  It reads as a sequel to her classic 'To Kill a Mockingbird', showing us an adult Scout and a very much changed Atticus. The lawyer with a heart of gold who championed the cause of justice in a racist society is now a bitter, garden variety bigot. You probably also already know that Go Set a Watchman was not written as a sequel to Mockingbird, but is actually its first draft.  At editorial suggestion Harper Lee focused on a flashback to Scout's childhood, and from that piece of advice the book we all read in school was born.

Harper Lee famously said that she did not want to publish another book. So why at age 89 would she decide to let Mockingbird's first draft be published as a book in its own right after the missing manuscript was supposedly discovered by her lawyer?  Your guess is as good as mine.  The purpose of this post is not conjecture about whether Harper Lee had a late in life change of heart or is being taken advantage of by a publishing giant.  Let others shout "Liar Liar - pants on fire" if they wish.  I'll buy this version of the story until/unless someone proves it to be false: From Mockingbird to Watchman

And perhaps there is more to come, for here is A New Account of ‘Watchman’s’ Origin and Hints of a Third Book

Some readers are conflicted:

But perhaps we should simply read Watchman and judge it on its own merits. Doing so without comparison to Mockingbird is of course pretty much impossible. Harper Lee's 'Watchman' Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A Masterpiece

Not that this is preventing it from selling like hotcakes. Go Set a Watchman Breaks Book Selling Records

The release of Watchman has people re-examining Mockingbird with new eyes. In the #BlackLivesMatter era does Atticus Finch still come across as a civil rights hero?

It's also tough to think about Mockingbird the book without comparing it to Mockingbird the movie.

A search for more hidden gems may now be underway as result of the discovery of Watchman:


Chapter One of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

My review of Go Set a Watchman:

Go Set a Watchman (To Kill a Mockingbird, #2)Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me---if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you'd let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday. Then I'd have said that's just His Way, that's My Old Man, because I'd have been prepared for it somewhere along the line."

The words above are spoken to Atticus by his daughter Scout towards the end of Go Set a Watchman. They basically sum up the entire book. As you may already know, or in case you didn't until landing upon this review, Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird quite a few years later. Jean Louise (aka Scout) is now a grown woman contemplating marriage to Henry, whom she has known since childhood. Henry has remained in their hometown of Maycomb, Alabama and followed the footsteps of Atticus into the law profession. If Scout wishes to marry a father figure, she's all set. Yet apparently she wants more out of life than Maycomb has to offer, because she now lives in New York City, which is about as different from the small southern town she grew up in as a planet in another galaxy. Maycomb holds many ties on her though. The narrative of Go Set a Watchman takes place during a visit to the place where her identity was formed in the earliest of her 26 years.

Much has changed in America from the years Mockingbird are set in to the 1950's. A considerable amount of the change has to do with race relations. People who were once blatant bigots continue to be so. Some things never change. But those who were closet bigots with enough good manners not to let it show in polite society now feel free to express hostility openly. Turns out they were only able to give the appearance of open minded respect for their fellow man when scales of opportunity were tilted heavily in their favor. As the scales became more balanced, the truth beneath southern hospitality was revealed. Count Henry and even our hero Atticus among those in Maycomb more willing to hear out the KKK than the NAACP. Changing times to them means time to put up a more aggressive fight against progress.

Amazingly Scout has been clueless about her father's true social/political views until he is about 70 years old. Once she is finally in the know, of course she feels betrayed. Her father was a lie. Her childhood was a lie. Her life has been a giant deception and she must get through the devastation and figure out how to come to terms with this.

I did not like Go Set a Watchman much. Not enough happening in the plot (no cool subplot like the one Boo Radley presented in Mockingbird). Too many long speeches that did not ring true to how people speak off the page of a novel. A domestic violence scene (I realize this was a far different time than 2016 but still) that was jarring and felt unnecessary and plain weird to me. Last but not least, I just didn't buy that it would take an intelligent woman so long to obtain an inkling of how the people closest to her feel about topics of such importance to her. It's not as if anybody was trying to hide anything from her. But somehow she only saw nobility in her father without catching a whiff of the stench of the rotten core that lay beneath his principles. Those of us who read To Kill a Mockingbird and/or saw the movie adaptation were also duped. This isn't the Atticus we thought we knew. How had that guy actually been this guy all along? Did we not read the book closely enough, all subtext going over our head? Or was Atticus given a complete personality transplant, which means not only did Atticus betray Scout, but Harper Lee betrayed us?

I could choose to contemplate Watchman in a vacuum, pretending I have no awareness of Mockingbird, that I'm meeting these characters and examining their motives for the very first time. If I do, I don't think it changes my opinions much. I still see the same flaws regarding lack of an attention holding plot, too many wandering speeches, etc. Sense of betrayal would be lessened, but I would still find it odd that it took Scout so long to finally wander into a room and learn what type of people she has been surrounded by her entire life.

Maybe that last part is unfair of me. After all, I know a thing or two about racist views remaining undetectable for a long period of time until the right situation brings them out from hiding. I've known parents who showed no overt sign of bigotry until their child became romantically involved with someone of another race. Prior to then, from their words and deeds and even choice of friends, few if any clues of intolerance were given.

There are things we don't know about those who are closest to us. There are things we don't yet know about ourselves because the circumstances to unearth them still lay in the future. There are cowards who believe they are brave, timid people who don't realize their potential to be adventurers, and friends who do not yet know that they consider you to be their enemy.

Unintentional deception is an intriguing premise for a novel. I don't feel that Go Set a Watchman examined it particularly well, but merely brushed up against the surface. I suppose that's why Lee's editor advised her to put Watchman aside and craft a new book based on an incident referenced in what turned out to be a first draft several decades before emerging as a sequel. That sound piece of advice (or so the legend goes) led to the creation of the vastly superior To Kill a Mockingbird.

Then again, perhaps the beloved Atticus Finch of the time tested Mockingbird is simply too good to be true. Maybe Atticus of Watchman is the more realistic depiction of a flesh and blood man, because the fact that he is a hypocrite is made plain. The shattering of illusions we depended on always goes down hard.

View all my reviews

p.s. Turns out there are way more than #TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter

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