Morning Coffee: Harper Lee, 1926-2016

Mockingbird2

 

The book to read is not one that thinks for you, but one that makes you think.

“To Kill A Mockingbird”

 

Harper Lee, author and Pulitzer Prize winner, has died. Like so many others, I was saddened by the announcement, not surprised because she was 89 years old and in failing health, but sad at the idea of a world without this woman’s keen sense of right and wrong, the moral and the ethical.

I won’t go into her biography here. You can get that easily by Googling her name. What I would like to comment on is the profound legacy she left behind summed up in this one simple quote from her debut novel…what would have been her only novel if she hadn’t recently published “Go Set A Watchman” in July 2015. Harper Lee’s books made you think! They opened up hearts and led to more than a few heated debates over the recent months.

I don’t know how many friends have told me they had to read Mockingbird in high school and still own a copy that they pick up periodically to re-read, me included. However, ask them about Watchman and you might get a completely different answer. Some refuse to read it because they’ve been told by others that they will be disappointed, that it wasn’t well-written and their beloved Atticus is portrayed as a racist rather than a saint. But others, like myself, loved the second book as much as the first, although for different reasons, and I encourage them to read it as a story of the changing times and a young woman’s struggle to reconcile her simplistic childhood image of her father with his true complex nature.

Yes, Atticus Finch is flawed in the sequel; but aren’t we all? I would argue even the most conservative and the most liberal view-holders actually fall somewhere in that wide middle ground. In Mockingbird Atticus defends a young black man, Tom Robinson, charged with rape. He does this not because the man is black, but because he is innocent and Atticus believes in justice. Scout, like the young Harper Lee, goes to court every day of the trial to watch Atticus argue before the jury. She idolizes her father, as so many of us do. She has a larger-than-life image of him that she carries into adulthood. In Watchman, Scout (now Jean Louise), is a young woman home from New York City to visit her father. It is the 1950s and her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, is in the middle of the debate over the Supreme Court’s Brown vs Board of Education decision. Jean Louise is shocked to find her father is a member of a community group fighting desegregation, and he is not fighting for the rights of the black children.

Atticus Finch explains his views as paternal. He feels black people are not ready for equal rights yet, but that they will be someday with the guidance of well-meaning community members, father-figures, like himself. Of course, we now recognize this as blatant racism, but Atticus Finch was a complicated man living in an era that straddled the old belief system he grew up under and the new beliefs Jean Louise and her generation will fight to attain.

Too many people today sit back and wait to be told what to believe, what to think. I don’t know if they can’t be bothered with deciding for themselves, or if they are afraid of being told they’re wrong. If you read Watchman within its historical context and it leads you to think, even to debate others, if you walk away feeling like maybe you learned something, then the author has done what every good writer aims to do and you will be a better person for it.

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One thought on “Morning Coffee: Harper Lee, 1926-2016

  1. Jane:
    I agree with you. “Watchman” is not “Mockingbird”, but it can stand on its own. I have also run into closed/narrow-minded people who refuse to read it. In a way they are as bigoted as those southerners in “Mockingbird”. Thanks for your comments.

    Like

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