Rebecca Lerner: To kill a Finch

Monday, September 7, 2015 - 6:01pm

“I’ll say one thing for her – she sure can write,” my dad said to me, interrupting my reading of Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman.” The recently released novel, a chronological sequel to Lee’s first book, was actually written prior to her iconic “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

As it is for many Americans, the story of Scout during her transformative 10th summer in Alabama is more than just a book to me. One of my fondest childhood memories is of listening with my brother to my father reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” in the summer when I was nine years old. With my logical and kind father, my teasing older brother and my god awful haircut that resembled Mary Badham’s in the film adaption, I related to Scout on a fundamental level. As I grew older and had to study the novel twice in high school, I continued to naively adore its characters. I proudly donned the “What Would Atticus Do?” pin given to everyone in my grade. When my neighbor’s family named their dog Atticus, I gave my whole-hearted approval. Like Scout in the novel, I put Atticus on a pedestal. But “Go Set A Watchman” crushes that pedestal, putting Atticus firmly on the ground as the human being he is.

“Go Set A Watchman” begins with the adult Scout, who now goes by her given name Jean-Louise, when she returns to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama from her life in New York City. At first she slips back into her old town comfortably, flirting with her high school sweetheart, Henry Clinton, and fighting with her Aunt Alexandra. Her ease ends when she finds out that Atticus, Jean-Louise’s earliest model of integrity and fairness, is a member of a version of the Klu Klux Klan called the Citizen’s Council.

The racial justifications that Atticus gives Jean-Louise for his behavior are incredibly uncomfortable. There’s no escaping it. While he agrees with his liberal daughter that black people are human, he does not believe they have the capacity for decision-making or responsibility. It seems unnatural to hear such bigotry spew from the mouth of the man who stood 20 years earlier in front of his entire town to defend Tom Robinson and said “Gentlemen, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe it is this, equal rights for all, special privileges for none.” When we flash back to this moment with a young Scout, the shock and hurt that she experiences with this revelation about her father seems entirely legitimate.

And yet, the discovery about Atticus does not inherently contradict the beloved characters of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Atticus is first and foremost a law-abiding man, and his defense of Tom Robinson was based on the fact that Robinson was an innocent man being accused of a crime he did not commit. A clear distinction is made between Atticus and more infamous White Supremacists – Atticus would never physically hurt someone or break the law to uphold his beliefs. His less violent form of racism possibly comes as a surprise, but does not come out of nowhere. After living in the deep South for 72 years, Atticus, a straight white male with some socio-economic power, does not want to change a system that favors himself and his offspring. If this situation were applied to anyone besides the most famous seeker of justice in modern literature, the conclusion that in these circumstances, this person would subscribe to paternalistic racism would not be eccentric.

But he’s not some random racist. And our connection to the person that he was in the first book is what fuels the fire of the second. Like the rest of “Go Set A Watchman,” the ties that it has to the characters from “To Kill A Mockingbird” prove to be it’s shining moments of glory. The narrator Jean-Louise, who in the second novel has made the switch from her wise beyond her years first person voice to a more stiff third person one, comes to life when she dwells on her childhood. Without the first book, it would be too much to expect readers to care about how much Jean-Louise has changed, or that she doesn’t speak to Dill, or that Atticus is part of the citizen’s council. “Go Set a Watchman” is a fine addition to its predecessor, but would wobble if it tried to stand on its own.

“To Kill A Mockingbird” has its roots in “Go Set A Watchman.” An editor saw the passion of the childhood scenes and asked Harper Lee to write a book twenty years earlier from the point of the view of young Scout. Without “Watchman”, we wouldn’t have the entrancing book that will make countless young Americans actually enjoy English class. It’s enjoyable to read because even after not penning another book for over 40 years – Lee sure can write.

Lerner is The Michigan Daily's new literature columnist. You can contact her at rebler@umich.edu.