Tim Tan Huynh

To Kill a Mockingbird and its sequel

6 Feb 2015 — The literary world got a proverbial shot in the arm with news of a second Harper Lee book. The book is a big deal because of Ms Lee's long, self-imposed retirement and because it's a sequel to her classic debut.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one my favorite books, along with The Catcher in the Rye. I read them every year during the holiday season; I finish reading the former some time before Christmas, like I did in the high school, and I go through the latter on New Year’s Eve. I like to think of these books as my literary grandparents, each giving wisdom about the world and the nature of us.

Both are works of mid-twentieth century American fiction set within a decade of the Second World War. Both are a part of the modern literary canon and, as such, are staples of high school English courses everywhere. Both also launched their authors into fame that they shunned, which in turn probably added to public interest in their unassuming lives as well as their famous novels.

Until this week, I thought that Harper Lee would, like JD Salinger, only ever share one book with her fans. I’m glad that her second book is a sequel to her first and only other one. Go Set a Watchman is set 20 years later and follows an adult Scout aka Jean Louise Finch as she returns to her hometown Maycomb to visit Atticus, her father and hero in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Interestingly, Harper Lee wrote the former before the latter. Her editor believed that the adult Scout’s flashbacks to her childhood were more interesting, so the budding author turned the flashbacks into the weighty story that we know today (CNN). To get an idea of the novel’s widespread influence, the announcement of its sequel was mentioned in the intro for the February 3 episode of Pardon the Interruption, the popular sports-talk show.

Here’s an irreverent though accurate summary, courtesy of Thug Notes. If you haven’t read the book or if you’ve forgotten its plot and themes, shame on you.

I haven’t seen the 1963 movie starring Clark-Kent-lookalike Gregory Peck as Atticus, and I’m sure it’s excellent, but I like to see the movie that I’ve developed in my head. There’s so many memorable scenes, but there are two that really stand out. One is Scout watching Atticus from above as he leaves the courthouse after the first day of Tom Robinson’s trial. The other is Scout looking at her ‘hood from Boo Radley’s front porch for the first time.

These scenes are so enduring to me because of their subtle, emotional impact. Atticus paying no attention to the fanfare that he gets from the black spectators of the trial, after his long day of work as the underdog defense attorney, is the determination and dignity that Scout later sees in her father. Her epiphany at the end, with her new literal view from the Radley home and her new figurative view of humanity, is the most sadly beautiful.

Besides Scout and Atticus, I think that the following characters will return: I hope to see and hear from Jem, Dill, Uncle Jack, Aunt Alexandra, Calpurnia, Miss Maudie, Heck Tate, and maybe Judge Taylor. I hope that Boo Radley at least gets a mention, even though Scout The Narrator states in the denouement that she never sees him again.

Because To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by an apparently adult Scout—read the opening passage if you don’t believe me—I don’t worry about the follow-up having totally different narration. The anticipation and expectation for Go Set a Watchman will only skyrocket as July 14 nears, but I have faith. I’m sure it will, in some way, build upon the Scout’s hard-earned appreciation for the virtues of civility and courage, especially amid cruelty.