|Nelle Harper Lee in 1961 source|
As a high school English teacher I taught To Kill a Mockingbird for many years. It is an eminently teachable novel. The vocabulary is challenging but not beyond the scope of most fourteen and fifteen year olds, there is much to learn and discuss in the book, and the characters capture the imagination and the hearts of most readers, even teenage ones. I still love the book, and I've watched the movie at least twice a year since 1994, depending on the number of classes of grade nine I taught in any given year. Yet I never grew bored with either. Or failed to well up with tears at crucial moments. Like when Reverend Sikes exhorts Scout to "Stand up, Miss Jean Louise. Your father's passing."
Yep. I needed a tissue there. Again. But as wonderful a book as To Kill a Mockingbird is, I tend to agree with the stance taken by Canadian writer Lawrence Hill in his 2009 article in the The Toronto Star. Hill, whose own novel, The Book of Negroes, grapples with issues of racism, contends that while Mockingbird is a worthy book it should not be the only book in the high school curriculum that deals with themes of racism. That students should not stop reading To Kill a Mockingbird, but should simply read more books like it, books which teach anti-racism but which are more current and which are Canadian. I would like to add, though, that many Canadian high schools do just that. Overall, I agree with Lawrence Hill; students need to be exposed to current Canadian novels which look at race issues in Canada. But To Kill a Mockingbird is still a great book. And the passage of time has not diminished its greatness.
|Harper Lee based her fictional Maycomb on her hometown Monroeville, Alabama. Here seen in the 1930's. source|
|Monroeville in the 1930's. source|
Go Set a Watchman is set in 1950s Alabama, during the civil rights era. In particular during the protests and violence that erupted over racial segregation, and the US Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. Scout, now an adult living in New York City, travels home to Maycomb, Alabama, where she encounters her father's apparent moral about-face and struggles with her own subsequent disillusionment and despair. I won't say any more about the plot. You need to read the book itself. Because despite the opinions of some, including several members of my book club (we read and discussed the novel last fall), I think it is a book worth reading.
|Old county courthouse in Monroeville used as the model for the courtroom in To Kill a Mockingbird. source|
|Nelle Harper Lee and her older sister Alice Lee source|
I also don't agree that Go Set a Watchman will weaken Harper Lee's literary legacy. I mean really, To Kill a Mockingbird is still the great book it always was. Okay, so the "discovery" of the Watchman manuscript, shrouded as it is in mystery and controversy seems contrived and a bit silly. And Harper Lee's lawyer and purported "great friend" Tonja Carter seems to be a bit shady, what with accusations that she has manipulated the author, her refusal to answer questions from the press, and the weirdly coincidental announcement to publish Watchman only a few months after the death of Harper Lee's fiercely protective older sister Alice. Alice would probably, according to some articles, have objected to the publication.
But none of this real-life literary melodrama should touch Lee's work itself. Or alter the effect that Lee's characters and their struggles have on her readers. And I think the flawed nature of Go Set a Watchman is interesting in that it reveals to us that, just as Atticus is shown to have feet of clay, so Lee herself as a writer is not perfect.
Since Harper Collins' announcement last winter, I must have read fifty articles on Lee herself, and this "new" work. And what they revealed to me besides all the hype and controversy was a glimpse into Lee's early working life, before and after To Kill a Mockingbird. How she struggled to revise Mockingbird, once even chucking the manuscript out of her window into the snow, how she struggled in vain to write a second book. And eventually how she withdrew more and more from the glare of publicity, tired of the scrutiny and the media circus, ever more protective of her privacy. So, you see, she wasn't a literary genius, who gave birth to one miraculously perfect work and then withdrew from the world. She was a gifted writer who struggled, just as many young writers struggle. And seeing her less than perfect second (or is it first?) novel makes her seem more human. Like the rest of us.
I'm sad that Nelle Harper Lee has died. I hope that all the fuss in the last months of her life, since the publication of Go Set a Watchman in July, was not distressing to her. That having long ago said good-bye to all that, she didn't feel once again beleaguered by her own celebrity. Because that would be very sad, indeed.
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