Posted in Fiction, Film

My Lovely, Painful Summer with Harper Lee

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When it was announced in early 2015 that Harper Lee was going to publish her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, everyone in the world went berserk. Here was the one of the most famous authors of our time, legendary for having only published a single novel — the Pulitzer-Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird — and after fifty-five years, she was giving us a new work. Anything from Lee — a novel, a short story, a haiku — would have been worth celebrating, but the fact that this novel that was also a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird was truly momentous. I, like almost everyone, tempered my enthusiasm a little because of the suspicious news reports that came out about Lee and this second novel — the manuscript was simply an early rejected draft of Mockingbird, Lee was unwell and nearly deaf and blind in an assisted living facility, the people Lee was supposed to trust are taking advantage of her to make a quick buck. I read all the reports, and yet still, I wanted Go Set a Watchman, and I wanted it now. This was easily the publishing event of 2015.

By the time early May rolled around, I started thinking: I should read To Kill a Mockingbird in the weeks leading up to the release of Go Set a Watchman. I hadn’t read the book since freshman year of high school, a whole fifteen years prior, and while I rarely re-read books — life is short enough to guarantee that I’ll never get to thousands of great books in the world, so why should I spend time with ones I’ve already read? — Mockingbird was one of my favorite books from childhood and the time was right for a second go-around. In my online readings about Lee, I also discovered a brand new non-fiction book about the reclusive author, entitled The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, by Marja Mills, had recently been released, and my local library had a copy in stock. It was then I decided to pursue what I liked to call My Summer with Harper Lee, which consisted of the following: The Mockingbird Next Door in May, To Kill a Mockingbird in June, Go Set a Watchman in July, and the 1962 film version of Mockingbird, starring Gregory Peck, in August. I do these kind of informal series with movies, but rarely have I done these kinds of series with books. Whether Go Set a Watchman was to be good or bad, I didn’t really care; a summer with Ms. Lee was going to be well worth my while.

The Mockingbird Next Door

I didn’t even have to read a word of Mockingbird to learn more about Harper Lee than I’d ever known, with Mills’ The Mockingbird Next Door giving me an intimate glimpse into the woman, the author, the legend. She was just as fascinating for the book she wrote as she was for the reclusive life she led. She rarely granted interview requests — the last official interview she gave way back in the mid-1960s — and only occasionally did she make any public appearances — Oprah herself couldn’t even get Lee on her show, and instead she had a sit-down interview with the author that was private and untelevised.

Mills is a reporter who was granted unprecedented access to both Lee and Lee’s sister, Alice, not just once or twice, but multiple times over many years, to the point where Mills became like a member of their family. Mills’ book paints Lee not as a recluse but as a funny, witty, intelligent woman who reads hundreds of books a year and loves hearing from her many fans. They would often go for lunch at fast food joints like McDonald’s and Burger King — in her small Alabama town of Monroeville, where most people walked right by Lee not knowing she’s one of the most celebrated authors of all time.

One of my favorite chapters in the book detail Lee’s reaction to Capote and Infamous, two films released in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Both films feature actresses playing Harper Lee in the 1960s, when she helped her good friend Truman Capote research In Cold Blood, and being such a huge fan of Sandra Bullock, who once stated in a Charlie Rose interview that she wasn’t granted access to meet Lee in preparation for the film, I was curious: what did Lee think of Bullock and her performance? Mills details how she sat down with Lee during that crazy year and watched both of the films with her. Lee liked Catherine Keener in Capote, but particularly loved Bullock in Infamous, and was only disappointed in Bullock’s choice of shoes, which Lee told Mills she never wore in her life. This book is a true gem for Lee fans, as it gives us access to her life in the 1990s and the 2000s that paints a picture not of a J.D. Salinger-like recluse, but of a woman who’s not afraid to live her life her way.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Next up was Lee’s beloved 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which has become a staple in every high school in America, and has moved millions upon millions of readers over the years. I was certainly one of them who fell in love with this story back in the ninth grade, during a time when I wasn’t reading too many required books for school that could get me excited. I loved my Stephen King and Harry Potter for pleasure reading, but for school I had to read books like Walk Two Moons, Cold Sassy Tree, and The Merchant of Venice, works that didn’t really speak to me. To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book I read in high school that I fell in love with, something that kept me pondering the themes and ideas and characters far outside the four classroom walls.

Since freshman year, I have included To Kill a Mockingbird on my list of favorite books of all time, and one element of my summer of Harper Lee was to revisit this beloved novel for the first time since my initial reading. Would it still hold up? Would I find parts of the book too slow or repetitive? In early June I purchased a beautiful fiftieth anniversary copy and then quickly started reading, not swallowing the whole novel up in mere days but taking slow sips over the course of the month.

If I’m going to be completely honest, I wasn’t as wowed with To Kill a Mockingbird as I was back in high school, and I found myself more appreciating the story more than actually savoring it. One strange narrative structure I noticed this time around is how much the Boo Radley story is a part of the book’s opening hundred pages, and then mostly forgotten about until the very end — it almost feels like Lee’s editor had to remind the author to not forget to wrap up the Radley storyline. Also, the famous trial portion of the book doesn’t have much of a set-up, and when it finally arrives more than halfway through the book, it feels a little forced in terms of everything that preceded it. Overall I had a pleasant experience re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I love the relationship of Scout and Atticus, I enjoy the prose, the important themes still resonate, but I wasn’t as emotionally moved by the novel the same way I was at the impressionable age of fifteen. Maybe I’ve turned more cynical, I don’t know.

Go Set a Watchman

Of course, I don’t have to be anything close to a cynic to know deep down in my heart that everything about Lee’s so-called “sequel” Go Set a Watchman was anything but a cash grab, a marketing decision made for financial reasons, nothing more. Despite the absolutely gorgeous cover, the book was so light and slim when I first picked it up that I wondered if it was a novella instead of a novel. At 288 pages, it’s nearly the same length as To Kill a Mockingbird, but it feels about half that long, because the publishers have blown up the print and separated each chapter with endless blank pages. Not, of course, that the length matters; whether this was fifty pages or 500 pages, the real question is whether or not Go Set a Watchman is any good. Nobody expected a great piece of work on the level of To Kill a Mockingbird, but even the most hopeful couldn’t have imagined a disaster like this.

And that’s what Go Set a Watchman is: a disaster.

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