The world went into a bit of spin last week when it heard Harper Lee has written a sequel/prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, Sadie Hasler tries to contain her excitement.
Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird. Picture courtesy of Universal International.
I went into a complete bloody dither when I heard that Harper Lee was to have another book published. I would have been less shocked than if I’d been teleported to the ’50s to find I was Marilyn Monroe in a jacuzzi. Or something. Maybe not that shocked, but pretty “what the eff?” nonetheless.
Lee has been famously quiet since her last interview in 1964, never showing any signs of wanting to add to her oeuvre of one and being all-round darn mysterious. Is there anything more exquisitely intriguing than a legend that wants to hide; a painfully modest hero?
After I passed through the various stages of ‘stunned’, ‘squealy’ and ‘slightly worried I might wet myself’, I calmed down and reflected on what a sequel really meant to me, to the world and to Lee.
The brief answer is: a lot. I’m not sure I feel at ease with it. How can you match the original? I’m worried that Lee is setting herself up for a lot of attention she doesn’t want, and that it might not all be good. Some have also raised concern that the author may have been coerced into releasing the work, especially given her lifelong reticence for attention. But while all that whirls around, here’s the lowdown on why To Kill a Mockingbird is, and always will be, something to squeal about.
Set in 1930s Alabama, six-year-old Scout and older brother Jem grow up in the sleepy comfort of a Southern town. They idle in dark imaginings about their reclusive neighbour Boo Radley, play with their precociously eccentric friend Dill, are mothered by formidable black servant Calpurnia and are raised to be good humans by their widowed lawyer father, the best man ever to have strolled humbly into literature, Atticus Finch. The childhood haze gives way to the central story of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a local white woman, Mayella Ewell. Atticus defends him and the trial, and fallout within the town, cause Scout and Jem to examine racial prejudice, injustice and the confusing lesson that adults can be harrowingly disappointing.
The Narrative Voice
We are taken around by the loose hand of Scout – who blends a six-year-old’s naive and sometimes hilarious observations of everything around her with the retrospect of an adult you grow to love as much as the child. You get a sense that the adult voice has been shaped by everything that happens within the pages of the book, which lends a certain glow around the import of what is to come. You are with Scout every step of the way and miss her when you reach the end and must put the book away for a while. (You never really put the book away. It is always with you.)
Scout is a ragamuffin tomboy. She scraps to get her way, defends her loved ones with her fists and thinks dresses are “pink cotton penitentiaries”. She derides the silly women of the town and refuses to identify with them. The silly selfish frivolity of the women around her is tightly bound to the ignorance that is launched at Atticus when he dares to defend a black man. We get a sense in her adult voice too that she has not changed with time; that she has not been feminised by societal pressure; that she remains free-spirited.
The Heart-in-the-Throat Moments
I still go wet-eyed even thinking of the bit where Scout and Jem are watching their father during the trial of Tom Robinson, up in the balcony with the people of the local black church. At the end of the trial, as Atticus leaves the courthouse, Reverend Sykes says: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” Holy shit, that gets me.
The bit at the end where Scout and Jem’s lives are in danger. I won’t ruin it. The bit with the mad dog in the street, where we find out Atticus is the best shot in town.
Any bit with Boo Radley. Ah man, all the bits. All of them. Just read it, for chuff’s sake.
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” That’s Atticus.
ATTICS ATTICUS ATTICUS. Have I mentioned I love Atticus?
The Trivia Goodness
Lee was besties with Truman Capote. That’s pretty cool. There have long been conspiratorial whispers about whether Capote is the true author of To Kill a Mockingbird. While I find this deliciously minxy-mischievous to ponder, I don’t think it is true. I love the thought of two of America’s most loved authors kicking about from childhood, their genius tangled up together like shoelaces.
Picture from Arrow Publishing
Lee assisted Capote in his head-fucking research into the infamous murder of a Kansas family, The ensuing book, In Cold Blood, is credited with kicking off the true crime genre.
Friends made donations so that Lee could give up working at a British airline to write To Kill a Mockingbird. She must have felt an immense pressure to write something that honoured their love, faith and pennies. The girl did good. The girl did really really good.
Sadie is a playwright, actor, columnist, artistic director of Old Trunk theatre company, and frequently discombobulated multi-tasker.