Hoping for Harper Lee

Today sees the release of the year’s most anticipated book: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. My plan is to use my lunchbreak to head to a bookshop, buy a copy and then set about reading it. So do look out for a review appearing on this blog within the next few weeks. Why is it so keenly anticipated, though?

Partly there is the mystique surrounding Harper Lee and the fact that she has spent most of her life as a “one-hit wonder” in the same league as J.D. Salinger. Rumours have long abounded about other works, but it was only earlier this year that it was confirmed that we would have a follow-up to ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. Many have taken to re-reading Mockingbird in preparation for its sequel, though I’ve opted not to. I retain a strong memory of a book I read several times as I was studying it for my GCSEs. Unlike Pride and Prejudice, which I was also made to study, this was a book I fell in love with. As soon as one does, you can see why it has been considered a classic.

Though a work of fiction, Mockingbird told much truth and gave an insight into the place and time to which it related: the racist deep south of the USA. Atticus Finch was the hero of the story, standing up to the hegemony of hatred and giving a voice to the voiceless. The civil rights movement was meant to address this aspect of American society and to ensure that all people were treated as the equals that they were, regardless of the colour of their skin. Yet the civil rights movement seems only to have been a partial success. Legally, it has succeeded, but it doesn’t seem to have universally won over hearts and minds.

And racial tensions are on the rise again. With instances of institutional racism on the part of white police brutalising black citizens, with black churches being attacked by gunmen and their buildings being burnt to the ground, with the confederate flag being banned in places and (according to a documentary on Channel 4 last night) an increase in the membership of Ku Klux Klan, one cannot help but think back to the America of the 1950s and 1960s and think that whatever progress may have been made, it simply isn’t enough.

There was understandable rejoicing when Barack Obama was elected and re-elected as president, but he remains far from universally respected in the American domestic political arena, and a lame duck as his party doesn’t control one of the two houses of their decidedly odd form of government.

It is into this arena, this day and age, that we see the eventual publication of Go Set A Watchman. Can Harper Lee speak truth to a society, one that is so pivotal in the world stage, and bring healing and hope where there is hurting and hate?

One of the things that is different about this, is that Go Set A Watchman wasn’t written for 21st century America. It was written before To Kill A Mockingbird, with the first published work being a prequel to the one that sees the light of day today. We may read with the hindsight of 55 years, but in doing so we must be careful not to project that hindsight back onto the book, which wasn’t written by the 89 year old Harper Lee; it was written by a much younger woman.

There have been early rumours that Atticus Finch has been made less than the ideal model of gracious virtue, but as for the plot, the rest of the characterisations and the quality of writing, that is all yet to be discovered by a legion of readers across the world. I’m looking forward to reading it and I hope you are too.

God willing, there should be a review appearing on this blog in a few weeks.

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