A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Back in February, one of the biggest news stories to come out of the book world in recent years broke. Harper Lee, who had famously only ever released one novel, was to publish Go Set A Watchman, a sequel to the stupendously famous To Kill A Mockingbird. It will be published across the world in July 2015, and will, apparently, take up some of Mockingbird’s best known characters 20 years after the events of the first novel. The papers and the Internet were ablaze with excitement but also some controversy. Lee is elderly, and in a residential home. Did she fully consent to all of this? Had she been taken advantage of? Lee’s representatives and publisher maintain not, though I sense it is an aspect of the over-arching story that will never quite fade away completely.
With this momentous publication imminent, I decided it was finally time to read that copy of To Kill A Mockingbird that has sat on my shelf for years. In fact, I have a horrible suspicion that I actually borrowed it from someone a decade or so ago, and now I can’t remember who it is. If you are reading this and it’s you, please make yourself known and I will return it, with many apologies.
From an informal straw poll of my friends, it seems I may be the only person who (until recently) hadn’t read it. Even my husband, who can’t really be done with fiction and much prefers a music biography or something about 20th century history and politics, had read and enjoyed it. That I had got to the age of 33, and had studied literature to postgrad level, without opening it was, truly, a shameful literary secret. I haven’t even seen the film.
I’m sure I don’t need to recount the basic story, but here goes: Jem and Scout Finch are the children of Maycomb County’s respected lawyer, Atticus. The children spent their time playing in their garden and developing a fascination with their reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley. Atticus, a defence attorney, takes on the case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman; a deeply controversial case for Atticus to take on considering it is the 1930s and racism is found in many corners of the count(r)y. Scout and Jem are repeatedly teased or bullied as result, both by other children and even by adults. The whole sorry saga becomes a life-changing experience for the children, as for the first time their eyes are properly opened to the discrimination that is rife in the community they have grown up in.
Oh, what a time to have read this book. As I was finishing the book, the news reports from Charleston, South Carolina came in, where a young white man entered a church predominantly attended by black people, and shot nine people to death. Evidence would suggest that the attack was racially motivated. It is a horrific story. Legislation may have moved on in terms of segregation and of displaying prejudice within a judicial context, but it would appear that the attitudes of some people have not moved on all that much from the times Lee imagined for the Finches. It brought an extra poignancy to an already extraordinarily moving novel.
While my reading of To Kill A Mockingbird is somewhat on the late side, I am oddly glad that I didn’t have to study it at school, or even at university. There is something about coming to a very famous book under your own steam and just reading it, instead of breaking it apart in an academic context from the off, that is liberating in its way. I’m very glad I did it… eventually.
Racism, particularly in – but not limited to – America, has been back at the top of the news agendas in recent times, and it shows no signs of going away. In that context, what an interesting time for Go Set A Watchman to be published. What changes will twenty years make for Scout, Atticus, et al? And where will our society be in another twenty from now?
Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird (London: Arrow Books, 1997) ISBN 0099419785