Reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” As an Adult

When the first Hobbit movie was coming out, I re-read the novel I loved as a kid to reacquaint myself with the story and was more enthralled than I expected to be.

The wry voice was something I missed as a twelve-year-old in love with the adventure and fantasy, and I reconnected immediately with what moved me most the first time: the ways Bilbo’s fooled Gollum and the dragon. In each case, the small, clever Hobbit outwits a fierce enemy.  That was a real treat for me as a bookish, picked-on kid with a tough older brother.

Harper Lee’s Scout also defeated monsters when she helped defuse the mob in front of the jail. It’s one of the best scenes in To Kill A Mockingbird–if not entirely believable.  But Scout herself doesn’t hold up for me today because I just don’t believe her voice. She often sounds too mature for an eight-year-old, like when she thought near the end of the book (according to her adult self) “there wasn’t much else for us to learn, except possibly algebra.”

190px-MockingbirdfirstAnd I’m mixed about the book itself: it feels like an uneven blend of southern novel of manners with the “race novel” Lee originally intended, folded into a  courtroom drama which seems clichéd–through no fault of hers. We’ve all read so much John Grisham and Scott Turow, or maybe I have as a long-time crime fiction reviewer.  The story of the rape accusation takes way too long to get going.  And in terms of suspense, the final appearance of Boo Radley is a letdown after all the mystery and tension.  He’s just not that interesting.

Some of Atticus’s sentiments also grated on my nerves, like his belief that “a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human.” That feels hopelessly naive and sentimental–especially when you consider that Lee wrote the book after The Holocaust.  But closer to home, there was the brutality she saw in the south directed at Civil Rights protestors.

Flannery O’Connor damned the novel with pretty faint praise when it came out: “I think for a child’s book it does all right.” That seems unduly harsh (and unfair to YA literature). What works best for me as an adult reader is the local color, the barbed social comedy, and the graceful prose.

Of course the book’s dramatic core couldn’t be timelier: today’s America is still grappling with racial injustice just as Harper Lee’s fictional town was in Depression-era Alabama.  That’s sadly a story which seems to make the news every week–if not more often.

Lev Raphael’s 25 book Assault With a Deadly Lie is a suspense novel about militarized police.  It was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award.

7 Reasons I’ll Skip “Go Set a Watchman”

1) As a longtime print, radio, and on-line reviewer, I’ve always recoiled at massive media hype. I prefer to champion small press books and books that fly under the radar–and they make me more curious. It annoys me to see a book blitzed so relentlessly, and when a PR stampede roars into life, I’m suspicious and get the hell out of the way.

stampede2) When it comes to my favorite Southern writers, over the years I’ve preferred reading Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Dorothy Allison, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Alice Walker, and Faulkner.  Yes, Lee won a Pulitzer–but even though her classic book is wildly popular, it’s not at the top of my personal list.

3) The circumstances around the “discovery” of the book get murkier all the time and it’s increasingly probable that Go Set a Watchman is really an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird and not actually a “new novel.”  Lee’s own previous comments about her working relationship with her editor make that pretty clear.

190px-Mockingbirdfirst4) It’s unlikely that aged, infirm Lee had anything to do with publishing the manuscript.  Her own sister was quoted by Lee’s biographer as saying, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.”  Where’s the proof she would want us reading what she’d kept private for so long?

harper-lee_3374329b5) Reading about Go Set a Watchman and reading excerpts (including Chapter One in The Wall Street Journal) hasn’t made it seem appealing.  That includes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker quoting a drab passage I’m supposed to find “lovely.”  None of the reviewers has convinced me it’s a better or more interesting book than To Kill a Mockingbird.

6) If Lee weren’t famous, the manuscript (however it had been discovered) wouldn’t have been anything more than an archival curiosity.  It’s something a scholar might have eventually published with “apparatus”: notes, timeline, an introduction, etc.  But the Rupert Murdoch Money Machine has helped turn it into a global event instead.

Colorful fireworks lighting the night sky7) HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham said that “We [only] gave the book a very light copy edit.”  So Harper Lee is such a genius that she can go right into print without real editing?  That smacks of opportunism, sloppiness, or dishonesty.  I don’t want any part of a book published in such circumstances. I might, however, watch Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird again to see if it holds up or if–like the novel–it’s just something that meant a lot to me in my adolescence….

"To Kill a Mockingbird"Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.