I have no fear of ‘killing my darlings’ as we say in the writing game and I count favourite novelists as fair targets in that respect as you will know if you’ve been following my book reviews for some time. Harper Lee is a relatively new ‘hero’ for me as I only managed to get around to reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ last year (and I’ve never seen the movie, much though I’d like to). I was ready then to consider the sequel a bad move and trash her name.
I’d heard the uproar of course. Atticus a racist? Never! It was interesting to read the various reviews and how they tried to square this circle. It was obvious I needed to read ‘Go Set a Watchman’ for myself.
In my opinion, the book is brilliant. It is at least as equal to the first great novel and it informs us of what both novels are really all about – and that truth came as something of a surprise to me.
In the minds of many, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is about racial inequality. Certainly that’s the driving story – the arrest and trial of a ‘negro’ accused of rape. Similarly, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ seems to be about the horror of Scout finding her beloved father is a racist after all. Seen in this light the books are a) rambling – it takes forever for the plotlines to emerge in both books – and b) unbelievably inconsistent.
To me, it’s obvious that neither book is about racial inequality at all. This theme, while it seems so central, is actually a subplot and a sideline to what Harper Lee is really writing about. Like all the best writers, the action of her stories really isn’t the point. A good novel is all about people, their characteristics and their relationships with others. Both Harper Lee’s books are fundamentally about Scout and her relationship with Atticus, her father. Everything else is peripheral.
Seen in this light, the entirety of both novels make sense. The long rambling beginnings which seem to be about nothing in particular aren’t setting the scene – they ARE the story. They are the story of Scout’s childhood and how Atticus deals with her as she struggles to become a woman. In the first we see how she sets him up as her hero-god. In the second we see how she comes, finally, to an understanding of his frail humanity. It starts with his old age but doesn’t end there.
I don’t know why Harper Lee didn’t publish this second novel until decades later but the mirroring of our own attitudes to Atticus seems either a deliberate move by the novelist or a wonderfully ironic moment of life imitating art, imitating life. For here we are, decades later, having raised up Atticus ourselves as our great hero. Perhaps we read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in our youth? It’s still on the reading list for most schools. How could Lee do this to our hero? What a terrible way to trample on our childhood! But that’s the point – and we can empathise with Scout all the more.
I would like to see both books on the reading lists for schools now – but both should be read. Read ‘Mockingbird’ when aged eleven or twelve, when just entering that stage between childhood and adulthood. Read ‘Watchman’ when a few years older. Give time for Atticus to be a childhood hero, then hit hard with the reality – that there are no heroes; we’re all just human beings. What a gift that could be for young people.
But does Harper Lee really destroy our understanding of who Atticus is? Well, you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out. All I will say is that I came away with a greater admiration for both father and daughter. Greater admiration too for the author for her courage in daring to make her iconic character more real, more rounded, more true – and in doing so making us all ‘Scouts’ and kill our own darlings.