Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A new book from Harper Lee

Few things could have jolted me out of the funk I've been in like the news that Harper Lee will publish a new book, written before the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. The new novel, Go Set a Watchman, was actually written before. Lee submitted it to an agent, who requested that she re-write, making it from a young Scout's point of view. She did, and the rest is history. Her talent for painting the picture of a small Alabama town during the days of segregation is beyond remarkable. We walk those dusty streets with Scout, and with her we watch Atticus during trials. The books has an immediacy that few have. At the same time, it delves into social problems, racism being the most obvious. But the treatment of women, the insular life of a small town, the small prejudices all come to the fore. Like many readers world-wide, I thought it was one of the most impressive books I've ever read. And it had a greater impact on me than most.
A few years ago I was asked to sit on a panel discussing the book with several local people. I re-read the book and watched the movie. The book was even more powerful to me, and so was the movie. Some scenes were already clear in my mind--Atticus shooting the rabid dog, Atticus in the courtroom. But I was amazed at how far cinematography has come since the '60s. Still I loved every minute of it. The moderator of the panel was Bob Ray Sanders, a black local journalist and good friend. He asked me how, growing up in Chicago, I felt about black people, and I confessed that I was afraid of them. Bob Ray thanked me for the courage to answer truthfully. Not long after that session, I found Mockingbird on my oldest granddaughter's bedside table (I was temporarily occupying her room). I was crushed when I asked how she liked it, and she replied she thought it was boring. The book is required reading for something like 70% of high school students--perhaps that's a mistake; perhaps it's too soon. They can't appreciate the social problems because in this day they see them as solved, although racism is still a vital issue (proven by negative reaction to our president).
News of the forthcoming book--which I will read ASAP--sent me to the book I've been meaning to read: The Mockingbird Next Door, by Marja Mills, a journalist who, with the blessing of Harper Lee and her older sister Alice, moved next door to the ladies and wrote their story. Mills says Harper wanted to call it "Having Their Say" in spite of the fact that the title had already been used for the popular memoir/biography of the Delaney sisters, two ninety-ish black sisters who lived together in New York all their lives. I haven't gotten much beyond the opening, but I'm looking forward to reading it.
And I plan to be in attendance when my church reading group discusses Mockingbird week after next. It's been a good day for bibliophiles, especially students and devotees of American literature.

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