Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Harper Lee’

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields was written without the permission of or with any input from Nelle Harper Lee, yet still managed to present an in-depth, respectful view of the life of the famously private author.

The biography talks about the author’s life, providing details about her upbringing, family, friends and her writing, using anecdotes sourced from written materials along with personal ones from those who were willing to speak to Charles J. Shields, knowing that Harper Lee would not approve of their doing so.

The stories about Harper Lee’s upbringing were fascinating, even to how she fit into her family. I was very interested to learn about her childhood friendship with Truman Capote and of the enormous amount of assistance she gave him while they carried out research in Kansas for his book, In Cold Blood.

I was unaware that so much of To Kill a Mockingbird was based on what Harper Lee actually knew and experienced. Interestingly, she called her father by his first name, just as Scout and Jem called their father Atticus. Similarly, Harper Lee’s mother was mentally ill and was emotionally and physically unavailable to her children, so it made sense for the children in her book to be motherless.

The biggest question of all for most readers, of why she never write another book was fully addressed, too.

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee provides an interesting view of Harper Lee’s personality, influences and values without feeling intrusive.

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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I immediately rang my daughter to share the joy when I heard that a new book by Harper Lee had been found and was to be published, but on learning that the author’s understanding of what she was agreeing to may have been compromised when she approved publication of Go Set A Watchman, I decided not to read the story, which is supposedly an early version on To Kill a Mockingbird.
However, when my Dad, who as far as I know has never bought a copy of any other book for himself, bought Go Set a Watchman, read it and then forced his copy on me, my scruples were compromised. I held on to the book for over a year, trying to decide whether to read it or not – Dad wants me to, Harper Lee doesn’t, Dad wants me to, and so on, before I eventually succumbed. Once I had read the book, I found my original dilemma to be ironic.
Scruples aside, for anyone who doesn’t know, Go Set a Watchman is set in the 1950s. Scout is now an adult and is generally known as Jean Louise. She lives in New York City, but for the purposes of the story, returns to Maycomb for a visit with her father. Atticus, who will always look like a black and white Gregory Peck in my imagination, is now old and ill. Jean Louise has a flirtation going with her childhood friend Hank who wants her to marry him, but she struggles to see herself living happily in Maycomb after being exposed to a bigger world.
I don’t know if this book can be considered a sequel To Kill a Mockingbird or not. The story has Scout (Jean Louise just doesn’t roll off the tongue) discovering that her father is not the man she believed him to be. Scout is horribly disappointed in him but eventually learns that she can become (or already is) the person she believed Atticus to be, before he fell from the pedestal she placed him on. Scout’s character is a sledgehammer Harper Lee uses to address race inequalities, in an obvious attempt to force the world to be the way she wants it to be. The story acknowledges the history and the complications of these inequalities and it is clear that she believes there will be no fast, easy resolution to the issue, however much Scout wants there to be.
In my opinion, although Go Set a Watchman isn’t a great book, and nobody would name their child Scout or Jean Louise in honour of this character, the story does add something to the whole fairytale of To Kill a Mockingbird which for so long was considered one of the best ‘one-hit wonders’ of our time, although for the sake of my conscience, I do wish that Harper Lee had written an entirely different book with an entirely different set of characters.

 

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