Harper Lee's Gift

When my son was 8-years-old, he bestowed on me the greatest compliment that, in my view, a parent could receive.

He had just completed To Kill a Mockingbird, as a part of our reading ritual; we were discussing the book and its characters. He gave me his synopsis of Jem, Boo Radley, Scout, Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell, and the others. But he did not mention Atticus.

So I asked, "What did you think of Atticus?"

He said, "I liked Atticus. In fact, you remind of Atticus."

My son has long since disavowed any knowledge of the aforementioned discussion. He's even apologized if his words were "taken out of context."

I thought about this fond memory in lieu of the recent news that Harper Lee has after more than 50 years since she released To Kill a Mockingbird, signed over the publication rights of her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, to be released in July.

I, along with many others, am suspect of this latest development. Lee, who is now 88 years old, living in an assisted living facility, reportedly in frail condition, has spent her post Mockingbird life fiercely guarded of her privacy and an unwavering commitment to not write another book.

Who could blame her? How many writers reach the pinnacle of success in their lifetime, let alone, in their first attempt?

With over 40 million copies sold to date, a Pulitzer Prize, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, what does one do for an encore?

To assuage those concerns, Lee, through her attorney issued the following statement:

"I'm alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman."

The "reactions" that Lee mentions in her statement refers to the fact that Watchman, though not scheduled for release until July, is already the bestselling book, according to Amazon.

It is understandable those who have followed Lee's career would view this 180-degree change rather dubiously. But beyond any possible ethical infractions, the concerns of a second novel is reflective of what To Kill a Mockingbird means to a great many people.

I did not assign the book for my son to read so that he might learn a lesson about racism in a fictional Southern town during the Great Depression.

Nor do I view Atticus as the "Great White Savior." He lost the case; and Tom Robinson was killed unjustly. Ultimately, Atticus doesn't defend Tom Robinson because he's black; he defends him because he believes his client is innocent.

The power of To Kill Mockingbird, for me, lies in Lee's ability to use race and the Southern mores at the time to tell a larger story about who we are collectively.

When Atticus tells Scout: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it," is he not speaking to all of who participate in the court of public opinion, consumed more by the validity of our microwave answers than facts and self-reflection?

Imagine if we had a few more Atticus Finches in Congress who were willing to take a stand during run up to the Iraq War and say: "The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

Atticus becomes the embodiment of affirming another's humanity that most seek to achieve. But is offset the by the haunting reality of the human condition that we are destined to fall short.

Moreover, To Kill a Mockingbird is a tour de force because it simply causes the reader, of any age, to become self reflective -- to see not only the Scout, the Atticus, or the Tom Robinson, but also the unsavory characters that potentially exist in all of us.

There is a price to pay if one is willing to live with integrity. This is the gift Lee gives to all who read To Kill a Mockingbird. The thought of that legacy being sullied by profit in the winter of her life is unbearable for some.

As Mia Farrow recently opined, Harper Lee is indeed a national treasure. And for a brief moment, I can attest that a naïve 8-year-old boy saw his father as Atticus Finch.