‘Mockingbird’ 101: Brush up on a classic before reading Lee’s new book

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 12, 2015

By Jill Vejnoska

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When last we saw Scout Finch …

In 1960, Harper Lee, an unknown novelist from little Monroeville, Ala., released “To Kill a Mockingbird” to enormous acclaim. And then … Nothing, for the next 55 years.

Now, in an unexpected plot twist worthy of her friend Truman Capote, Lee, 89, returns this week with a “Mockingbird” sequel. Or is “Go Set a Watchman” actually a prequel?

(The reclusive author herself apparently prefers the term “parent” book.)

Arriving on July 14, “Watchman” once again features “Mockingbird’s” precocious child narrator, Scout; now, though, it’s the 1950s and she’s an adult who returns to Alabama from New York to visit her father, Atticus Finch. Lee wrote “Watchman” before “Mockingbird.” That’s led to even more questions, including why no one knew it existed until Lee’s lawyer reportedly stumbled across the manuscript last summer.

Whatever. One thing’s crystal clear. If you plan on reading “Go Set a Watchman” — and it seems many people do — a quick “To Kill a Mockingbird” refresher course is in order.

What it’s about: “To Kill a Mockingbird” takes place over three years during the Great Depression in Maycomb, a fictional small-town county seat in Alabama. Six-year-old Jean Louise Finch, aka “Scout,” and her older brother Jem, 10, live with their widowed father, Atticus, a lawyer, and are carefully watched over by Calpurnia, their African-American housekeeper/cook.

Early on, the book focuses more on the adventures of Scout, Jem and Dill, their quirky little friend (and obvious Capote doppelganger) who visits Maycomb every summer; the trio’s simultaneously fascinated by and afraid of Boo Radley, a neighbor who supposedly stabbed his own father years ago and hasn’t left his house since.

But the plot turns more serious when Atticus represents Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman; Maycomb’s reaction to Atticus’ stalwart defense of his client in and out of court ranges from quiet resentment to direct threats. (Spoiler alert: The all-white jury ends up convicting Robinson. Later, the accuser’s father attacks Jem and Scout when they’re out alone at night and they’re saved by … Boo Radley, who’s finally come out of hiding.)

What it’s really about: Prejudice (and tolerance), in all forms. Though set in the pre-civil rights era 1930s, it’s hard not to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a commentary on race, class and other issues the country and the Deep South in particular were wrestling with when Lee wrote it in the late 1950s.

Maycomb’s black residents, its “trash” (aka poor, uneducated whites), even Boo Radley — Atticus likely is thinking of them all at the end of “Mockingbird” when his daughter expresses surprise that a certain children’s book character turns out to be nice. “Most people are, Scout,” Atticus says, “when you finally see them.”

Past meets present: “Mockingbird” is anachronistic in some ways, most notably, its characters’ frequent use of the N-word. Meanwhile, Tom’s jury is all-male (women couldn’t be jurors in Alabama until 1968). But Atticus’ own abhorrence of the N-word and his impassioned defense of Tom against all odds were remarkably progressive coming from a small-town Alabama author in 1960.

Meanwhile, Lee seemed to anticipate today’s debate over religion’s role in public life when one sensible Maycombite sighs, “There are just some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.”

The reaction: The book spent 100 weeks on the bestseller list and won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The 1962 movie version won three Academy Awards, including best actor for Gregory Peck as Atticus — the “greatest movie hero” of the 20th century, according to the American Film Institute.

But not everyone loved “Mockingbird.” Some school systems removed the book from reading lists, complaining about its language, use of rape as a plot device or, as one Muscogee County schools official somewhat enigmatically told The Associated Press in 1966, “the integration question.” Tiring of fame’s demands and “the monotony of (reporters’) questions” (including if and when she’d write another book), Lee ceased doing interviews in 1964.

Burning questions about “Go Set a Watchman”: What’s become of Scout, Atticus, Boo, Dill, Jem and Maycomb’s other memorable characters some 20 years later?

Given that Lee originally filled “Watchman” with flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, will the resulting book feel fresh or more like a “Mockingbird” rehash? And considering the obvious autobiographical parallels — Lee wrote both books while living in New York, near her good friend Capote — will the fictional “Watchman” help fill in the gaps about what we know about the duo in real life?

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