Monthly Archives: August 2015
It’s been six weeks since the much-hyped release of Harper Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman. I pre-ordered the novel months in advance and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books, and I’ve longed for a sequel since I first read it at the age of nine.
Unfortunately, due to a delay beyond my control, I was forced to wait three weeks after its release before my copy arrived. Long enough to read the negative reviews and almost wholehearted condemnation from fans and critics alike. I became apprehensive. Would the alleged rough draft of Mockingbird be a letdown that shattered my love of the beloved classic and its characters?
Most of the criticism concerned allegations of racism, particularly on the part of the character Atticus Finch, the lawyer father of Jean Louise (Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird), who risked everything to defend a black man wrongly accused of rape in the original novel.
After reading Watchman and rereading Mockingbird, my fears were put to rest. Mockingbird is a better book, hands down, but I don’t think Watchman is horrible. If Lee’s editor had published Watchman, instead of encouraging her to rewrite it, it would have been an enjoyable read, typical of its time, before fading away into obscurity. It might have achieved book-of-the-month club status, but it never would have become a Pulitzer Prize winning classic.
We have Lee’s editor at J.B. Lipincott & Co., Tay Hohoff, to thank for that. Hohoff recognized the message Lee was trying to get across but felt the manuscript was not yet ready for publication. During the next two years, she led the author through a grueling rewrite process, helping her whittle the story down to its essence.
I don’t believe Lee was racist at heart. Watchman’s protagonist, Jean Louise, is appalled at the racist attitudes embodied by the people in her hometown. She is willing to abandon her father, beloved uncle, and boyfriend when she discovers they are members of a citizens’ group whose sole purpose is to prevent government mandated integration of the local schools. She’s even more horrified when she learns her father was once a member of the KKK.
We eventually learn that Atticus’ involvement in the Klan was limited to one meeting, many years before. His sole purpose in joining was to learn the identity of the cowards behind the masks so he’d know who he was fighting if push came to shove.
His membership in the citizens’ counsel is more problematic, but I think it reflects his values more than the author’s. Jean Louise is the character readers identify with. Atticus is presented as a complex product of the early 1900s Deep South.
The messages expounded in Go Set a Watchman (equality, love, compassion, standing up for what is right, etc.) are the same messages set forth in To Kill a Mockingbird, but they are muddied because of the contradictory personalities of Atticus and Uncle Jack. Atticus’ arguments against integration, along with some of Lee’s descriptions of people and settings, are reflective of a 1950s southern worldview. Enlightening from an historical perspective, albeit highly offensive today.
We must remember that Watchman was written before Mockingbird. Atticus is a fictional character. He didn’t morph from a wise, saint of a man into a conflicted racist. His character started out weak and was honed into the Atticus we know and love through several rewrites, over a two-year period.
To Set a Watchman is written from the point of view of an adult Scout reconciling childhood memories of her father (including his defense of the unjustly accused Tom Robinson) with the hypocrisy she discovers in his current life. To Kill a Mockingbird, which is written in the present tense to give it immediacy, takes place during Scout’s childhood, during the time of the trial. The message is the same in both books, but while Watchman offers a panoramic view of the theme, Mockingbird zooms in with a telephoto lens.
In the long run, Watchman will probably fade away and Mockingbird will endure. Should Watchman have even been published? It depends on who you ask. Lee’s relatives claim she wasn’t fully aware of what she was getting into. Her lawyer denies this. Critics and fans alike clamored for its publication and then slammed it once it arrived, comparing it with the original (perhaps unfairly?) and finding it lacking. It’s rough, no doubt about it. As an author, I cringe at the thought of any of my rough drafts being published, but assuming I’m still alive, who knows how I’ll feel in fifty years. Like its predecessor, Go Set a Watchman has generated both controversy and discussion. And in the end, isn’t that the point?
My love affair with literature started early. Both my parents loved reading, so it was natural they would pass their enthusiasm along to me. According to family lore, they read to me from the time they brought me home from the hospital, long before I actually understood what was being said. As a result, I was making up stories before I was two years old and reading long before I started kindergarten.
I was a weird kid. When I was eighteen months old, my grandma informed my mother I’d told one of her friends that her dog looked like a step cat. She thought it was a cute, albeit weird thing for a baby to say. Mom knew exactly why I’d said it. The woman’s Pekinese dog looked like the stepmother’s cat in my Disney Cinderella picture book. I later told this same woman that the tigers were going to get her (because she was wearing purple shoes like a character who got challenged by tigers in another of my picture books).
After I learned to read, nothing held me back. My parents, extremely conservative when it came to the movies and TV shows they allowed me to watch, gave me total freedom when it came to literature, so I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on, whether it was earmarked for children or adults.
Being an immature but precocious reader sometimes got me into trouble, as I often tried the things I read about in my books (because they sounded interesting or I found them funny).
The following is a partial list:
The Swiss Family Robinson. I desperately wanted a tree house like the family in Johann David Wyss’ classic novel, but the trees in our backyard were too spindly to support one. I build a shack behind the barbecue, instead.
Peter Pan. A natural, because my last name was Darling. One day I took a flying leap off my bed, grabbed the door to my bedroom and attempted to use it as a catapult to propel myself into the hallway. I sliced open all ten of my fingers.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I never found a secret passage in the back of my grandma’s wardrobe, but it made a cool, albeit dusty place to hide out.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I thought it would be cool to carry my lunch to school in a lard bucket, but since my mom didn’t use lard, I settled for taking my shoes off and walking through my grandparents’ cow pasture to see what Laura experienced in her barefoot walks across the prairie. Stickers.
Ramona the Pest. Beverly Cleary’s spunky heroine once called someone a “pie face.” I thought that was the funniest insult ever and tried it out on an older kid at school. Unfortunately, I forgot the exact wording and substituted the word “pizza” for “pie.” As in calling an acne-faced pre-teen a pizza face. The result, as they say, was explosive. I was puzzled. Pizza, pie, cake. To my six-year-old mind, what was the difference? Being called an item of food was funny when Ramona did it. Why was this kid so angry?
To Kill a Mocking Bird. My parents didn’t appreciate being called by their first names, even if Scout and Jem called Atticus by his. I also tried the tire rolling thing. Since I was too big to fit inside a tire myself, I rolled my younger brother down the road in one.
Tom Sawyer. Sneaking out at night. I got my best friend to go along with that one. We met under a lit street lamp halfway between our two houses then went back home to bed (there’s not much for ten-year-olds to do at two a.m. in the suburbs).
Pippi Longstocking. I attempted to navigate the various rooms in our house by jumping from one piece of furniture to the next without touching the floor.
The Nancy Drew books. I read the entire series and spent the better part of third grade peeking in windows in an attempt to find mysteries in my neighborhood.
John Steinbeck novels. After reading The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and Tortilla Flat at the age of twelve, I tried wiping my backside with pages torn from the Sears Roebuck catalog (once) and spent an entire summer drinking juice out of a Mason jar.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I made a homemade reindeer horn out of a paper towel tube, fastened it to my dog’s head and then hitched my dog to a sled like the main character in the Dr. Seuss classic. I had no particular affinity for the Grinch. I just thought the whole dog-as-reindeer idea had a certain panache. The horn wouldn’t stay on, but the dog happily pulled my newspapers on the sled so I could deliver them in the snow.
From Russia With Love, Goldfinger. James Bond’s martinis sounded elegant and oh, so refreshing. Since I wasn’t old enough to go into a bar, I improvised my own out of my parents’ liquor cabinet (having no recipe, I just guessed at the proportions). Blecchh! Which led to:
Gone With the Wind. When Scarlett O’Hara wanted to hide her drinking, she gargled with cologne. I gave it a try and gained a new appreciation for Listerine.
Judy Blume’s adult novels and the erotic writings of Anais Nin. My mother about fainted when she found these under my bed. I was twelve at the time. She calmed down after a very awkward conversation in which I assured her I found the activities in the books hilarious and more than a little gross and had no intention of trying them out for myself (not to mention the fact that boys generally didn’t go out for girls who quoted Roald Dahl and considered the pogo stick an alternate form of transportation).
Several years ago I ran into one of my childhood friends. She said she thought I’d had an amazing imagination as a kid and wondered how I’d thought up some of the things we used to do. She also told me that her mom had considered me somewhat of a bad influence back in the day.
Blame it on the books.
Gimme a head with hair, long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen
Gimme down to there, hair, shoulder length or longer . . .
The song from the musical Hair’s been going through my brain all day, probably because I’m having, if not exactly a bad hair day, a seriously mediocre one.
I’ve never had what I’d consider great hair—the texture’s too fine for that. However, with a good cut, and a little henna, I get by. Most of the time. Maybe it’s this nasty heat, but my head is definitely looking a bit fuzzy.
I grew up in an era of big hair. Long, chemically processed, curly, layered.
While I don’t miss the rotten egg smell and Brillo pad texture of spiral perms, I still have serious hair fantasies. One of my favorites is a recurring dream in which I have long, thick, shiny hair that looks like Cindy Crawford’s, and swishes when I turn my head.
Some contenders for the hair hall of fame:
Audrey Hepburn — one of the few people who managed to rock both long and short hair.
Lucille Ball — because she chose that color, and it looked awesome on her.
Cousin Itt (from the old Addams Family TV show)
Barbie (who still managed to look glam after spending an entire summer at the bottom of a backyard wading pool). Gives new meaning to the phrase, “wash and wear hair.”