Books I Have Read Twice!
I was moving my bookshelves the other day, and trying to reduce the number of books I have. Which is difficult because books seem to accumulate near me, like mess! Just when I get a book out of the house another one comes in.
As I was moving them, of course I took time to look at the ones I was keeping, and fondly remembered many. Some I can’t of course as I have got older and my memory is poorer about the details!
Anyway I found one, battered and dishevelled, that has been a constant companion for all of my life.
The book is, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, by Harper Lee, first published in 1960, the year I was born. I read it many years ago and have reread it a number of times since, in fact it is the only book I have ever read twice. I am sure many if not all of you have read it too. But just in case, the book is set in the 1930s, and is about Atticus, a widowed southern lawyer who represents a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hate. The book is written through the eyes of Scout his daughter who is 6, and through her eyes you see Atticus representing all that is good in the world, even against incredible odds, while still having time for her and her older brother Jem. The book is and has been pivotal for many people, Atticus was the perfect man — the ideal father and a principled idealist, an enlightened, kind, wise, honorable, an almost saintly believer in justice and fairness. In real life, people named their children after Atticus. People went to law school and became lawyers because of Atticus. The book was made into a movie which cemented its influence, and is one of my favourites, shot in 1962 in black and white with gorgeous Gregory Peck as Atticus. The movie is also famous because Boo Radley, the reclusive neighbour from next door who firstly frightens and then rescues Scout on Halloween, after the kids are attacked, is the first time you see Robert De Nero on screen.
Here is a story which combines the innocence of childhood, with the reality of the world as it was. The trial and subsequent events expose the children to the evils of racism and stereotyping, which in turn expose the readers.
I remember clearly some of the scenes written so powerfully in the book and acted out by our man Peck, particularly this one, when the verdict is read –
Finch is at the front of the courtroom with Robinson. The jury files in. In the balcony, the book’s narrator—Finch’s daughter, Jean Louise, or Scout, as she’s known—shuts her eyes. “Guilty,” the first of the jurors says. “Guilty,” the second says, and down the line: “guilty, guilty, guilty.” Finch gathers his papers into his briefcase. He says a quiet word to his client, gathers his coat off the back of his chair, and walks, head bowed, out of the courtroom.
“Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle,” Scout relates,
“Miss Jean Louise?”
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”
Ah it brings back such sweet memories! All my life Atticus has been my hero. A man going about his business, not as a civil rights activist, but a good and decent man. As he said to Scout, ““If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks, 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.”
Then something happened a few years ago!. I read what was touted as being a sequel to “To Kill a Mocking Bird” called “Go Set a Watchman” written also by Harper Lee and also in my library. I remember feeling very excited until I found out it’s not really a sequel, as it seems to have been an earlier draft of the first book.
Apparently “Go Set a Watchman” was the original title “To Kill a Mockingbird”. The phrase comes from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, in the King James Bible:
“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” – Isaiah 21:6
“Isaiah was a prophet. God had set him as a watchman over Israel. To set them straight, to keep them on the right path.
In the case of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch served as the watchman.
While written in the third person, “Go Set a Watchman” reflects Scout’s point of view as an adult: The novel is the story of how she returns home to Maycomb, Alabama., for a visit — from New York City, where she has been living — and tries to grapple with her dismaying realization that Atticus and her longtime boyfriend, Henry Clinton, both seem to have become bigots and racists. In this book set in the 1950s, Jem is dead, and it is a time of one of the most monumental changes in American society. We see increasing civil rights tensions and an end to segregation, exposing the prejudices between races, North versus South and the different generations. In “Mockingbird,” Atticus was a role model for his children, Scout and Jem — their North Star, their hero, the most potent moral force in their lives. In “Watchman,” he becomes the source of grievous pain and disillusionment for the 26-year-old Scout (or Jean Louise, as she’s now known).
Suddenly Atticus is not the paragon of virtue but a man influence by his surroundings and the turmoil and politics of the time. He is wanting to protect his town and his people from the changes that are coming. He wants to protect the Southern way of life. So he seems to accept that he has to deal with people with incredibly racist and outrageous views while at the same time still believing that the rule of law and justice is for all, regardless of race. A contradiction for Scout. Yet Atticus’s attitude seemed entirely authentic to me. His heroism and his prejudices are part of the same package, as it is with most humans. As Jennifer Burn said, when reviewing this book some time ago, “Racism is not reserved for “white trash” such as the Ewells and the Cunninghams, smelling of pig pen and booze. It taints the clever too, and the well-meaning. Even the great Atticus Finch, even though that’s hard to say”.
So, how did I feel about this so called sequel? Well, if I must own up, I felt slightly hurt and slightly cheated when I read it, what happened to gorgeous wonderful Atticus. Yet Scout is brave and independent in the book. She realises she has to let go of the idolised person her father was and find her own voice. She has to basically grow up. And growing up means seeing all sides, having empathy for all those involved, without losing her own compass. In the end Scout sees Atticus for who he is, a human being, influenced by his time and place. And realises that to change things in her town and in her state she has to start the change herself. While Atticus was the watchman in Mockingbird, I think Scout becomes the watchman in this second book.
A great example of the young, and a woman making a difference to us all.
Even though I have only read the Watchman once and “To Kill a Mockingbird” numerous times I pine for Atticus the hero? I do! Yet while Atticus the hero is rather tarnished to me maybe that’s what a good story does. It leads us to find our own voices in a struggle or situation, rather than leaving it for someone else. Even though it has been hard, perhaps I grew up just a little bit myself, when Atticus was exposed as being human. For we all are!
Stories like “To Kill a Mocking Bird”, and even its sequel can reveal deep truths about who we are and where we have come from and even where we might be heading. How we use stories is important, for they can reveal something to us about life, about our life with each other. Those clever enough to write them can quite often lead us to new places. Transform us in ways we would never have dreamed of.
Maybe I should read a few other books twice!