With Harper Lee’s much anticipated and talked about Go Set a Watchman due out in July there has been a social media read-a-long of Harper Lee’s iconic novel To Kill a Mockingbird initiated by the publishers of Go Set a Watchman. I already had dusted off my old paperback copy, intending to re-read it before the new novel arrives, so I didn’t take much persuading to join in. I had to ask myself why it was I had waited so long; there are other novels I read around the time I first read To Kill a Mockingbird which I have re-visited at least once in the years since. Although I had unconsciously avoided re-reading this novel, it remained very much locked away in the part of my mind where I stored many other formatively important experiences. For many of us I think, To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect coming of age tale, a book we read when our own opinions were still being formed, the injustice at the heart of the novel speaks especially to the young seeking a cause. Although I remembered very well the broad outline of the story in To Kill a Mockingbird I had forgotten many of the details, and quickly found myself utterly gripped. I needn’t have worried about the novel not living up to my memory of it – I loved every word, and was sad when it ended. I couldn’t help but feel I needed to write about it straight away.
One of the fears I know some people have of Go Set a Watchman is that it will fall flat – well yes, probably, knowing that didn’t prevent me pre-ordering it as soon as it was available, and I will read it as soon as it arrives. Go Set a Watchman will be an inferior novel; I don’t mean that as negatively as that probably sounds – but it can only ever be a lesser novel. It was after all originally rejected by Harper Lee’s agent. However whatever the merits or demerits of Go Set a Watchman might be, I don’t see how it can take anything away from the sheer joy, sadness, perfection and unadulterated reading pleasure that is To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman; the story of Scout as an adult – is also part of the story of To Kill a Mockingbird, and how it came to be written at all. I really can’t wait to read it – but I think my expectations of it are realistic.
“Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
I don’t suppose there is really anyone out there who doesn’t know the story of To Kill a Mockingbird. A coming of age story set in 1930’s Alabama of racial injustice and friendship that is enduringly poignant, powerful and deeply touching. Scout Finch is our feisty little tomboy narrator, she is just six when the story opens, though closer to nine during the main part of the narrative, she loves and looks up to her older brother Jem and together they get into many childhood scrapes. It is through Scouts eyes that we see the small Southern town of Maycomb, and its inhabitants. Scout and Jem live with their father, Atticus the town lawyer and are cared for by Calpurnia the loving, no nonsense housekeeper come nanny. Summers are the children’s favourite times, no school and days of freedom, and it also the time when Dill comes to stay with his Aunt Rachel. Dill is from Mississippi, and they three become fast friends when they first meet by Miss Rachel’s wire fence. One of the houses within sight of the Finch’s front porch is the Radley house. Arthur Radley – nicknamed Boo Radley by the town’s children hasn’t been seen outside the house in many years, and the children have woven spine tingling stories around the recluse, daring each other to run up and touch the house. Dill is particularly keen to come up with a plan that will lure Boo Radley out of the house. Atticus Finch, a caring, wise, deeply moral man, (maybe the best father in literature) wastes no time in letting the children know how deeply he disapproves of this game. Soon the children start finding small gifts left in a hole in the tree that stands on the corner of the Radley property, instinctively Scout knows who left them and feels a special connection with the man behind the closed shutters of the Radley house. Everything begins to change for Scout and Jem when they are made aware of tensions between Atticus and some of the townspeople.
“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”
Tom Robinson, a local black man has been accused of raping a white woman. Appointed by the courts, Atticus is working to defend the man, and there are many who don’t believe he should be. Atticus is principled and conscientious and he intends to do his job properly and fairly, no matter what some of his neighbours might think. This is a time when the word of a white man – no matter who that white man might be and how little he is respected by his peers – carries more weight than that of an honourable black man. Scout and Jem, learn some hard lessons about life, injustice and how you need to walk in someone else’s shoes before you begin to judge them. Their childhood is halted for a while, as the tensions of the town begin to get personal and the trial gets underway.
“If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I’m beginning to understand something. I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time. It’s because he wants to stay inside.”
I won’t say any more – just in case there is anyone who doesn’t know or has forgotten how things end – but for me the ending is sheer simple perfection. There is a wonderful wisdom and pathos in this novel, in Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch, Harper Lee created a little family the reader can’t help but want to be a part of. I may need to find a copy of that old film to watch now – it is also many, many years since I watched it,and I am even considering buying a nice new shiny edition to replace my very battered old copy (which I will probably keep too).