By: Harper Lee
Fifty-five years after the success of Harper Lee’s modern classic To Kill a Mockingbird, the reclusive author is now releasing the book’s predecessor, Go Set a Watchman. With only vague memories of To Kill a Mockingbird read rapidly over a busy summer vacation during my pre-teen years, I decided to reunite myself with a warm and complex cast of characters in this coming-of-age epic where Jem, Scout, and Dill discover the secrets of the adult world while moving out of the dreamy imagination and unintentional cruelty of youth. Set against a backdrop of hazy summer heat and the fantasies of childhood, the eloquence of the reminiscent, now grown Scout nevertheless evokes the innocence and dialogue of a growing child.
Armed with Southern tradition and the inevitable politeness to their elders, Jem and Scout are more entertained by the rumors of Boo Radley, the supposedly insane recluse living in the dilapidated house next door, than the impending trial between a young black man, Tom Robinson, and a young white woman who claims he raped her. It’s a trial where nothing less than human life is in the balance, as well as social prejudice and unquestioned tradition. Atticus, the children’s father and attorney for Robinson, realizes, however, that his determination to defend the innocent Robinson will shake the sleepy Southern town and awaken his children to the hypocrisy and injustice around them. Revealing the simulacrum beneath the “good” people of the county, Jem and Scout become interested in the trial and uncertain of the adult interactions around them. The townsfolk claim Robinson is only a black man – and you know how they are. Yet Atticus shakes these assumptions with compassion and irrefutable fact. How can good people sentence a good man to die? As the situation builds and the town’s attitudes turn ugly, the children see racial prejudice, neighbor against neighbor, and the complicated reasons and assumptions behind culture and each person’s actions. It’s a mélange of events that no child could truly comprehend, and the confusion of the situation, the warring thoughts between beliefs long held to be true due to popularity and the evidence they see presented through Tom Robinson, paints the world in hazy shades that clear with time and distance, Scout looking back on all those threads and weaving them into a meaning and a cohesiveness only allowed by maturity and experience.
The subject, as you’ve already guessed, is a serious one involving racism, the deception of a culture, civil rights, justice, and even family and friends. I realize now that my original ho-hum reaction as a pre-teen was inevitable. Although, ostensibly, To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel about children growing up, it is hardly a book that children or pre-teens can understand. The concepts and morals are heavy, although never heavy handed. Likewise, be forewarned if you wanted to hand this novel over to your children or school group that there is use of the “n” word which parents or teachers may want to discuss with potential readers in advance. The usage of this word is hardly a “sign of the times” as with the unfortunate Huckleberry Finn, but instead an instrument that reveals the dehumanizing effect society placed on black people and how the word, like the treatment, so casually trickled in and infected people who otherwise seemed to have a base perception of right and wrong. It shows how tyranny is created, how lessening others builds fake power in the eyes of abusers, and how even innocent children become so easily captivated and brainwashed in a system they do not yet, and cannot, understand.
Despite the serious concentration of the narrative, a strange element of the cozy and nostalgic is evoked. The sense of adventure within childhood, the simple joys of midnight pranks, the neighborhood ghoul story, and the questions and observations of childhood animate our characters with a verve that returns us back to innocence. This, of course, makes the loss of that innocence and the awakening during Robinson’s trial even more poignant. We long for a world where evil is a boogeyman, a myth, and where the people on our streets, in our schools, aren’t part of the problem. We’ve tasted this world again, too briefly, through the children and a certain nostalgia, a certain love of the hot dog days of summer, the possibilities, the naivety, the freedom, along with the lull of the language creates an atmosphere that persists, even when innocence is destroyed, as though to show that some good always remains in the world, if you look for it with the right eyes.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a modern classic that remains timeless and incredibly current at the same time, cementing a message with realistic characters who capture first our liking and then our respect. We grow up again along with Scout and Jem, watch the wisdom and struggle of Atticus to choose the right responses and the right, if not socially acceptable, manner in which to raise his children. The language is Southern, authentic, and oddly universal; the world of then alive again with the buzzing of nighttime bugs, scratchy collard patches, and the sweaty hordes fanning themselves in a courtroom stuck between justice and prejudice. A truly unforgettable novel, I’m not quite sure how Lee’s sequel can top it (or even approach the original majesty), but I for one am excited to find out. Highly recommended.
A Note on the Edition* I listened to the full, unabridged audio book narrated by Sissy Spacek. Her Southern accent mixed with her expressive reading and ability to evoke emotion and different character voices brought the story even more vividly alive. The music interjected at key moments was a further value added, making this hands down the best way to encounter this modern classic again. Refresh your mind with an old favorite and start preparing for Go Set a Watchman.
- Frances Carden