Sunday, August 23, 2015

How to kill a Mockingbird...or not

It goes without saying To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the world's most beloved books, and certainly a favourite of mine; one I return to and re-read regularly. But it doesn't make my top ten, possibly not even my top twenty (I've never done a top twenty books so I have no idea).
However, it is one of the most perfect books I've ever read. Beautifully written, powerful subject matter, melancholy and sentimental without being too schmaltzy (as some American novels can be), important historically, and really nothing you can find fault with.
It won the Pulitzer Prize for goodness sake!
The author, Harper Lee, is a thing of legends. One book. No more, no less. One perfect book and goodbye. A handful of interviews and no more.
I loved she was friends with one of my favourite authors, Truman Capote. Such an odd pairing, my fascination of them has always been piqued. There was always the rumours that Capote wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, but I never believed a word of them. Capote loved himself a bit too much to let someone else get away with all the glory that came with To Kill A Mockingbird. There is no way he would have stayed quiet on that one!!
This has been my truth and reality for most of my life having first read To Kill A Mockingbird when I was about 14. I have revisited it many times since, and the story never changed...until now.
When I first heard - quite early - rumblings of a 'second' book by Lee, my first - and ONLY - thoughts were, No good will come of this!
And I still think that...
Then all the articles came flying out, oh boy there were many. And like a good Librarian I did my research. So many about how wonderful it all was, so many about how awful it all was. Nellie - as Harper Lee is affectionately known - wanted this, Nellie is not of sound mind, her sister wouldn't let her do anything, her sister looked after her legacy. For every good article I read, I found a bad and vice versa. Everything balanced out so evenly you just couldn't be sure what was what! And to be honest, I do not think we ever will.
It does seem incredibly strange to me that her sister - who had looked out for Nellie all her life - dies and boom here comes the book. I don't think I can ever get over that. It seems quite foul to me.
The book - we now know as Go Set A Watchman - is not a prequel or a sequel, but a first draft. Yes, the kind of thing that most authors really wouldn't want anyone seeing. A first draft her publisher knocked back but sent her away with to make significant changes to. And who knows how many other drafts there were until To Kill A Mockingbird sung as it does. (And please please please do not say there are other drafts that may be published unless you want to see me really really really mad!)

This is what is being published, that first draft.
And so I waited and hoped it would die a quick death, but unfortunately this didn't happen. During this time, nothing was revealed, and all I thought to myself was if this does go ahead - and boy I wished it wouldn't - I really hope it doesn't denigrate the actual book, To Kill A Mockingbird. But I calmed myself with the thought that nothing could denigrate or taint the Pulitzer Prize winning International Treasure.
Then just before the publishing day, three major newspapers revealed (albeit under embargo) the plots in their reviews. I didn't want to read the reviews, I like to make up my own mind on things - even if it did seem I had already made my mind up - but I just couldn't help myself. I have no idea why! And for that I am ashamed. Now I must say here, I never do 'Click Bait' on the Internet, I consider myself a person of integrity, at the very least in my profession as a Librarian where - despite what you might have heard - books are still king!

But when the New York Times is reviewing a book that has so much history you want to hear what they say...until of course you read it and realise your worst nightmare is reality and what they say about Go Set A Watchman makes you feel physically ill....for much so you wish you hadn't ordered a copy to buy yourself.
But, intent on all things truth and being a good librarian, I headed to my local bookshop and purchased the book. The fact I paid full price for it - where seemingly everywhere else had it discounted - added to my pain and honestly, I will remember that betrayal for a long long time. It sat in its paper bag for a long time.
An aside: I read many bookshops in the US were offering full refunds for those unhappy with the book - now that is customer service!!
And let me say while all of this is going on I had decided - in my un-infinite wisdom - to schedule a discussion on it at my Bookclub. Feelings were mixed, some were keen, some were not, others hated the idea, I came very close to pulling the plug and changing it to something else. I knew I had to read it, I feel it is part of my job to be informed on these titles. To comment on something I had not read seemed to lack backbone. So I put it out for a vote and most of the group felt we should discuss it, let's face it there was a lot to discuss.
Also during this time I was approached by local radio to discuss my feelings about it on air. I had so much to say - none of it terribly good - but I had not read the book. It would have been unwise to do so at that point so I declined.
10 days prior to Bookclub, I very wearily started the book. Over a couple of days I read it on and off - it is actually a book you could whip through in 1-2 hours, but I didn't have the stomach for that with this title - and then with about 30 or 40 pages to go stopped. I had intended to keep going, but I was busy and this meant leaving those pages to read until the day of Bookclub. This may not have been wise!! I finished the book, and being overly tired and mentally exhausted I slept for an hour and woke very confused. I still had time to write some words for this blog and to gather my thoughts for Bookclub and I ended up in tears, it was all too much. I guess that sounds overly dramatic. For the record, I am an emotional person, a cryer, I think most know that about me. But this was much more than that, I felt violated, sad for denigrated characters within the book, and concerned for how our lovely Bookclub would handle this...more on that later.
So the book - spoilers will be written from here, so approach with caution!
Scout - or Jean Louise as she is known now - is travelling from New York (where she lives and works - it never says what she does there) home on her yearly break, she is in her mid 20s. She is met at the train by her 'beau', Hank. Whilst she is home she is fussed over by her family and Hank, and then she comes across some very racist paraphernalia that belongs to her father and all hell breaks loose (for everyone involved, but especially the reader, the poor poor reader!) There are also flashbacks to her childhood, which is the time where To Kill A Mockingbird is set.
After Jean Louise finds these booklets, she follows her father to a 'meeting' at the Town Hall, and watches from above in the balcony. The white men of the town are meeting to talk about what to do with the black folk. It was a very disturbing scene - for Jean Louise and for me and I imagine for anyone who ever held To Kill A Mockingbird dear to their heart. Not just because you see our beloved Atticus as a foul racist, but it is set very similarly to one of my favourite scenes in To Kill A Mockingbird where Scout sneaks in to very same spot to see her father at work and for the first time sees him for the magnificent man he really is. Yes you can see the provenance - and indeed the ironic juxtaposition of the magical scene, but it still bites.
Later Jean Louise has it out with her beau - who was also at the meeting - it is a bad fight. Atticus finds them on the street, and wants to talk to his daughter. He is cranky with her, even calls her a bigot - because a bigot is someone who doesn't listen to the opinions of others (oh vey). She is very upset with her father and gives him what for. This goes on for too long. It is awful and clunky to read. He explains he initially joined the clan (WTAF!!) because he wanted to know - as the town lawyer - who was behind the masks, it was a kind of infiltration. But, of course, he didn't really stop anything. The meeting at the town hall was not the clan, but it may as well have been. Their reasoning was the blacks were an inferior race and if they - the whites - let them proceed they - the blacks - would not have the intelligence to handle the white way of life...sigh. The fight continues, Jean Louise leaves to pack and go back to New York never to return. Her uncle comes to chat her about her fight with their father, he HITS her, Atticus returns, they fight some more and he convinces her to forgive him and she does. There is more to it than that of course, but you get the idea. White, southern men do not come out very I guess some things never change.
Nothing about any of this (in terms of the characters) rang true to me, it all felt forced, and nothing like the people we know and love. The flashbacks were more enjoyable, they felt right, and made me smile. But you know, for that feeling, I could have just re-read To Kill A Mockingbird. And this is where we need to remember IT IS JUST A DRAFT, IT IS NOT AN ACTUAL BOOK!!!!! And you can see why the original editor turned her away and asked her to concentrate on the childhood narrative and flesh that out more.
It wasn't well written, it wasn't badly written, it seemed like a turbulent mix of thoughts and ideas poorly put together. G, our wisest Bookclub member, felt it was an extraordinary editor to see that it could be turned into something better, something that became the masterpiece that is To Kill A Mockingbird. She is right!!!
I think that this book should not have been published. I feel very annoyed and betrayed at the system, at publishers, and at booksellers who push this. I'd love to know who is really benefitting financially out of this, and believe all proceeds should go to charity. I also have a lot of questions about the manuscript/draft that was published, was it really written by Lee and for real, and if it was for real, was it touched in anyway? My theory is it was real, but was not meant to be published, and that it was touched or tampered with. Jem, Scout's older brother, is barely a footnote in Go Set A Watchman, 'neatly' written off as he died, this is hardly mentioned. I believe he wasn't in this draft at all, and because people would want to know why (because as much as you explain it is a draft, some people will never quite grasp that concept!!), they added him briefly, but killed him off. It is messy and silly. There are a few other points that seem added, I don't know. I guess we'll never know and there is not much written out there about this part of the 'story'.
Bookclub was an interesting discussion as you can imagine, everyone had slightly different versions of the same thing. No one liked it, some hated it, no one loved it. We talked a lot about the different eras, that technically - as much as it was disliked - this draft of the book was probably a more 'correct' presentation of race relations of that area at that time, whereas To Kill A Mockingbird was more the ideal. And the ideal was infinitely a better book. We discussed the provenance of the draft, and what a great lesson in intellect and writing it was, to try and see how the draft turned into that masterpiece. This led to discussion on whether the draft was real, written by Lee, embellished by publishers, made up by publishers and every other scenario we could think of. Then even Mockingbird's authorship was discussed. I reluctantly wondered out loud if Capote had indeed assisted made me feel sick to even say that, but the publication of this draft has undone my faith a little. Some felt the truth would come out at some point, I'm not too sure about that. There was talk about who would play who in the inevitable (Grrrr) movie of Go Set A Watchman.  We decided a younger Hilary Swank and Matthew McConaughey would be Jean Louise and Hank, lol! I really hope there is no movie!!!!!!

Never have we had such an intriguing, intelligent, passionate, and interesting discussion at Bookclub, especially with such a large attendance. I thank everyone for their kindness and support (to me, for daring to suggest such a book), their passion, their love of literature, their dedication to talking about this book, and every other book we discuss. Despite the fact none of us really liked it, it was a thrilling discussion. How nice it is to sit at a long table with smart, feisty women, and discuss and debate such things. I feel blessed to call each and every one of them my friends.
I am still very much thinking about all of this, it is still too fresh in my mind. I know when I push this blog - this very long blog - out into the ether there will be a zillion more things I wish I added, but it is already too long. Maybe I will revisit it in a month or so and write some more, but to be honest I am hoping that in a month or two I no longer think about the book at all, except to realise it was a complete and utter debacle!
Though I have realised this: I still revere To Kill A Mockingbird, my love of it and its perfection has not been tainted too badly, and I think in time the dints will disappear. And whilst I hated this new/old story, I didn't really see any of the characters as the characters I loved - except in the flashback scenes - Gregory Peck was still the righteous and perfect man he always was as Atticus. The 'new' Atticus seemed very one dimensional, I couldn't picture Peck (Peck and Atticus are forever one in my mind) as him, I read those sections almost numb and disbelieving. In fact, most of the characters seemed one dimensional and not fleshed out. So whilst it is horrific and this first version of Atticus is the thing of nightmares, the final evolved version of Atticus and indeed all of the characters are the correct ones, and the ones that will continue to live in my memory. The versions of them in this book are merely scribblings yet to be developed. This reasoning makes it easier to digest. And yes whilst the horror of Go Set A Watchman will most probably stay with me for a while, I was glad to have read it, and glad my gut - as always - was spot on. 

In the forthcoming weeks I will re-read and re-watch To Kill A Mockingbird to cleanse myself of this debacle, but I still need a little time before I can.

I would love to hear more thoughts and opinions, so please feel free to share them if you please.

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