I am late to the Harper Lee fan group. I had never picked a copy of either of her two books until this January when I read To Kill a Mockingbird for a local library book club. Which is odd, considering I grew up in Alabama, but it was never required reading in high school there or in Virginia or during my undergraduate career. So I wasn’t that interested. It’s only in the last few years that I figured I should probably read it because it is considered a classic and Harper Lee did win a Pulitzer Prize for it. So I read it for the book club, and then followed it with Go Set a Watchman, for February’s book club selection. I have never seen so many mentions of the N-word in two books, it was a bit unnerving.
Whenever I think about To Kill a Mockingbird, I automatically go, in my head, to the image of Gregory Peck as Atticus, even if I’ve never finished watching the movie. He’s just so iconic and perfect for the role (even though truthfully I’ve never been a big fan of the actor’s work). And even reading through the book, Peck as Atticus is who I visualize in my head.
To Kill a Mockingbird is the story about a young girl named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her older brother Jem (short for Jeremy). It is about the two kids growing up in a small town named Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. It is written from their (though mostly Scout’s) point of view, something not often seen in literature, much less a book from 1960. They live with their widowed father Atticus, the local town lawyer, and call him by his first name. Their mother died when Scout was little and they are pretty much raised by their maid Calpurnia, an African-American woman. The book takes place over a couple years, and also features Dill, a young boy who visits his aunt in Maycomb during the summer from Meridian, Mississippi. The main part of the book is about Scout and Jem witnessing the trial of Tom Robinson, a local African-American man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a teenaged white girl, the impact of the trial on their community, and how they are changed by the events surrounding and following the trial. It is also a story of fear and standing up for what’s right, told through the eyes of the Finch children in regards to their mysterious next door neighbor, Boo Radley. Recommended for ages 14+, 4 stars.
I will says that this book made me a huge fan of Atticus Finch’s character. He is like a beacon of hope and reason in a world gone crazy during the extreme hate and racism of Alabama in the 1930s. It is nice to read about a father raising his kids essentially by himself, though with the very capable help of Calpurnia, their African-American housekeeper. Scout and Jem are changed by watching the Tom Robinson trial and for the first time they are able to look into the adult world and see how others outside of their tight-knit family behave. And it is not pretty.
The other thing I love about this book are the observations of the characters, especially Atticus and the children. For example, when Dill, Jem and Scout are watching the trial and Jem makes them go away during the cross examination and Dill is talking with Mr. Link Deas. They are talking about how sick Dill feels after watching the prosecutor rip Tom Robinson a new one, and how disrespectful he was towards Tom. Dill says “It ain’t right, somehow it ain’t right to do ’em that way. Hasn’t anybody got any business talkin’ like that – it just makes me sick.” And it is sad and yet refreshing to hear a child honestly say that and see Tom Robinson as a person, instead of less than one, as the majority of the other adult males see him.
One of my favorite scenes in the book, which coincidently happens to be one the most effective means of collecting money, is the scene where Scout and Jem go to church with Calpurnia and the Reverend is trying to raise money for Helen, Tom Robinson’s wife. The Reverend basically locks the doors and guilts everyone into giving whatever they can (literally nickle and diming) to help the poor woman out. Just think about if you could do something like that when raising the money for something else important like keeping libraries open, raising money for education, or curing diseases. Just saying.
Go Set a Watchman was the first draft attempt at the book which later became Mockingbird. Jean Louise Finch is twenty-six years old and has been living in New York City. She is single, though she has had an on-and-off-again relationship with her father’s mentoree Hank. It is 1955 and she’s come home to visit her father Atticus who she does not see through such rose-colored glasses as she did when she was younger. What she sees of him now completely changes her perspective of her father and what she thought he believed in and therefore what she believes in. 3 stars.
I honestly didn’t know what to make of this book. There were some brilliant laugh-out loud funny parts in it, i.e. The Holy Ghost scene with Dill and Jem (I was laughing so hard during this part, while I was on my lunch break, that I’m sure my co-workers probably thought I was crazy) and thought-provoking scenes like the one with Jean Louise and the meeting with the young married women where she discusses how it takes two races to “mongrelize a race” and how that should reflect badly on whites not blacks. The ending, however, pissed me off so much that it has kind of tainted my whole view of the book. Now I know she wrote the book in 1959 and the sentiments of men and women, especially in the South, were predominantly different to what they are now. However, I think the ending nearly ruined the entire book mostly because instead of sticking to her conviction as she does in the beginning of the book, she basically completely throws them aside and becomes the saccharin sweet brainless Southern girl everyone expects her to be.
That being said, Uncle Jack does come up with a few valid points about Jean Louise, namely: “You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the very antithesis of his conscience–your conscience–you literally could not stand it. It made you physically ill. Life became hell on earth of you.” And it is hard, as children, to see our parents in a different light from what we observed when we were younger. And yes, sometimes that does hurt and change the way we think about them. It definitely did in Jean Louise’s case.
I agree with Jessica (another reviewer on Goodreads posted on 2/19/16) who said this about the book: “I do find myself bristling at wholesale dismissal of people from the South as altogether backwards and racist. Scout’s right; it’s a lot more complex than that. But Watchman doesn’t really make that argument very coherently. Maybe it’s just not possible to make that argument coherently at all.” Race is never a pleasant thing to talk about at the best of times and seeing as these books were set in the 1930s and mid-1950s makes it even harder. My maternal grandparents were raised in the 1930s and ’40s in Northern Mississippi and although I always knew about the racism in the South, I never really understood it till I was eighteen or nineteen years old and I first heard them use the N word. While I don’t think it is proper to use it in any circumstance (and it still irks me when my grandfather occasionally uses it), they are a product of their generation and back then it was acceptable (even encouraged) to refer to people as such. But Jessica on Goodreads is right, not all Southerners are backwards and racist, any more than they are all “Bible Thumpers,” anti-abortion, like to go off-roading in 4 x 4’s or possess firearms.