Harper Lee's Complex Heroes

I was never going to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I escaped it in school, and wrongly thought that it was a dull book about a courtroom trial. I read it this week, and I loved it. It's now one of my favorite books ever. Harper Lee is a master storyteller, and her creative use of language is a true joy. Plus, the story's just great.

The book is told through the voice of Scout, who begins the story as a six year old tomboy Alabama small town girl with a precocious vocabulary that's both hilarious and fascinating. We quickly fall in love with Scout, and her entire family. Mockingbird is a book that will embrace you as a reader so much that you will have to love it back, especially if you read it as an adult, or revisit it now after a first youthful acquaintance. I read it this week only because of the incredible hoopla surrounding the "new" book by Lee just published, fifty five years after Mockingbird, which I've also now read.

The official story on this week's publication is that it was the original manuscript Lee sent to publishers in the late 1950s, and it tells an interestingly different story about mostly the same characters. The editor at Harper loved the characters but wanted an extensive rewrite that focused on their lives when Scout was younger and that expanded on the account of a courtroom trial that was originally mentioned in only a paragraph. Lee took the advice, pretty much started from scratch, in terms of the overall narrative, and produced the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. The original manuscript she had turned in was about the lives of the same characters 20 years later and in a different social time in America. It's what was published just this week.

There's almost too much to talk about in the new book Go Set a Watchman. I loved it, then I hated it, and then I loved it again. Finally, I went away deeply impressed by the way it raises fundamental social, political and personal issues of a philosophical nature. A good book helps us see the world differently. A great book helps us see ourselves differently. This book may do both.

Almost every published review of the new book gets it wrong. Once you read it yourself, Google the reviews and you'll see what I mean.

I've read nearly all the first wave of reviews. They tend to consist of a sophisticated veneer over a tabloid alarmist screeching approach to what's portrayed as a shocking revelation about everyone's hero from Mockingbird, Atticus Finch. But what we really learn in the book is the complexity of his, and every hero's, true character, which is always more complicated than we at first realize. Scout goes through the biggest challenge of her life in coming to understand this, and comes to important realizations about herself as well as about her father.

I hope you'll read these two books as soon as you can. Go quickly to your favorite bookstore. I plan on blogging on them both soon, in some detail, but will wait a few days so as not to be too much of a "spoiler" concerning plot and revelations. I hope there will be thousands of book groups considering all the ideas to be pondered in this new publication. It's shocking in many ways, provocative in more, and will surely give any careful reader new insights into the human condition, while at the same time being just a great, quick read.

We'll talk more later.