A great many of us are familiar with Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Most students in the last few generations read it at least once as part of their schooling. Even Rob Gronkowski has read it. It’s made all kinds of book lists in the last few decades, and I know many a person who includes TKAM in their personal list of best books, including myself.
The news broke today that a second novel of Lee’s is to be published this summer. Go Set a Watchman is a sequel to its famous predecessor and was actually completed back in the mid-1950s. It will follow Scout Finch as a reflective adult and bring many of our old favorite characters along for the ride (including Atticus, don’t worry).
Due out this July, Harper (as in the publishing house; Lee and I are not on a first name basis) will be printing two million copies. It’s also worth noting that, at 88, Harper Lee still sports the Scout hair style. Cute.
All this excitement begs us to ask why it matters this much. Sure, the anticipation of a long-lost sequel to a beloved story is understandable. But what was so lovable about TKAM to begin with? Why did it strike such a chord with us through the years? And, further, why is that important?
For those unfamiliar with the story, or if it’s just been a while, To Kill a Mockingbird was also written in the 1950s. In fact, Go Set a Watchman was written first. Lee was asked to make some changes in perspective to that novel, which resulted in the TKAM we know today. Set during the Great Depression, the story is told from the perspective of young Scout Finch and focuses on her family’s struggles with prejudice, injustice, and understanding in a small town in the Deep South.
In many ways, TKAM can be considered a coming of age story. It’s the proverbial transition from innocence to experience. Throughout the novel, we see Scout and her brother begin to grapple with incorporating complex moral issues into their respective realities. With the guidance and example of Atticus, Scout learns the power and importance of compassion. The universal themes present in coming of age novels tend to make them the ones our society holds most dear, and this is no exception.
Aside from the more prominent themes of loss of innocence, morality, and racial issues, TKAM also addresses rape, class distinctions, social inequality, and gender roles, among other things. Lee handles these weighty issues with an expert hand. She’s able to bring humor and levity to the novel and the issues it discusses without denying or compromising their gravity. It becomes easy to see how this novel generates such wide-reaching appeal.
Sadly, TKAM and the issues it raises remain topical. It brings to mind some current events in America, does it not? Despite such a history of racism and injustice in our country, many find themselves struggling to understand the anger and mistrust surrounding such events. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just wish away uncomfortable realities simply by refusing to acknowledge them? If we think that’s actually possible, perhaps we have some innocence left to lose of our own. As our society works to get its hearts and minds around these issues of race and injustice, perhaps, on a fundamental level, Atticus and his advice to Scout are the reminders we need.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”