Based on initial excitement levels, I was off the richter scale. I got an all caps text from my best friend aying, “HARPER LEE IS GOING ROUND TWO” and I ran to the other classrooms in order to tell everyone that Scout would be grown soon and we should have a teacher book club. Forget about what Mayella might be like as an adult. I always imagine her adulthood in one of two ways, she’s a white trash Sula character that is both mysterious and sultry, but hog tied to her hometown (a la Toni Morrison), or she’s the opposite of her Daddy, she seeks to reconcile her wrongs rather than seek revenge for them. The question is: will she be a flower or a weed?
I really would like to go with flower as Mayella grew those beautiful red geraniums which remind me so much of the story “Marigolds.”
“Against the fence, in a line, were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums, cared for as tenderly as if they belonged to Miss Maudie Atkinson, had Miss Maudie deigned to permit a geranium on her premises. People said they were Mayella Ewell’s.” (17.64)
Mayella could be one of two characters in the story “Marigolds.” She could be Miss Lottie who grows beautiful marigolds in a poverty neighborhood, or she can be Lizbeth, who in a fit of teen angst rips up the marigolds for herself.
1. Will Mayella be a flower or a weed?
This if my first question because it’s the one that most bothers me. Here we have Atticus Finch, this supreme man in literature, who could father all my babies if he wanted to, but his moral high ground doesn’t really extend beyond Tom Robinson, his family, and the old women who live down the street. He fights for Tom in an argument against a girl that has been raped and abused by her father for her entire life. If Mayella were a Law and Order episode, she would have countless visits with Dr. Wong, an empathetic shoulder in Benson, and her father would certainly get the shakedown from Elliot. Mayella would be a sympathetic aggravator because she’s a product of her environment, a child of trash who was shunned by her town and left.
Atticus fights as Tom’s lawyer and says things like, “Before I can live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself” to his daughter, but this isn’t a novel that fights for women. He’s a great father, but the women in the neighborhood are either, old, dead, or liars.
Mayella could take this one of two ways. She could do the opposite of her father and seek to reconcile his wrongs instead of avenge him, or she could become something else entirely. A fighter, or a whiner. A flower or a weed. I’m hoping that with her father dead she found some kind of peace in those red geraniums and bloomed into a new women, but that would be like living in a world where Harry Potter doesn’t die (oh wait, that happened). I’m interested to see how she does in a real world, if she escapes, or if she tells them to tighten the rope.
Sarah Churchwell says it better than me in her article “Why To Kill a Mockingbird is overrated.”
2. How will Scout be a feminist in a new world?
Since Go Set a Watchman is based on Scout as a grown woman, I’m trying to wrap my mind around how this is going to work. In 1930s TKAM, Scout is a bit of a mini-feminist, a child who can break up a tunnel of men holding weapons outside of a jail. There isn’t a word for what she is, but instead of putting on dresses, she puts on ham costumes and suspenders, and there’s nothing more manly than bacon, am I right? However, if she’s a middle aged woman in this new book, I’m assuming it’s set around the 1960s/70s.
Will Lee allude to the anti-violence campaigns of King, the fists of Malcolm X, the propaganda of Hitler? Scout will have lived through WWI, WWII and be going into Vietnam. Is Scout a woman who protests parades for drafted soldiers, or is she the woman that kisses her soldier slowly under dimmed kitchen lights? Is there even a soldier at all, because if you’re raised by a man like Atticus, who else can compete. Scout will have experienced hatred across a full globe; blacks who are told to act less than in America, European people who are told what is human and what is animal, and for Vietnam she will have to decide whether she believes in the men, or the fight.
This is a world of the 1950s where vacuum advertisements have women wearing aprons and sparkling white teeth. How will Scout be able to maintain her values in a world where the word feminist hasn’t even really been tapped yet. Today, girls believe being a feminist means having an alarm set at 8:30am everyday that says, “Be a bad bitch,” and climbing over their male counterparts in heels to get to the next higher paying job – glass slipper, more like glass ceiling – but in a world where everything is strained and chaotic, what will Scout’s voice be? Will she just follow the voice of Atticus and try still to treat everyone equally or is the world truly more complicated than that.
How will her ideals and values stand up to such world hate and how will Lee justify her behaviors in a world that held women down? In childhood Scout, we can justify it by childhood whimsy, grown women don’t get the same niceties.
These are things I need answered in this book.
3. How the hell is the narrative voice going to work?
TKAM stars an elderly woman who is looking back on her childhood and retelling the tale. Some of my students love the book, and others think it’s just another grandmother telling about “the struggle.” And I’m confused about how this is all going to work because if it’s old Scout telling her childhood story in TKAM, how is this going to work for Go Set a Watchman?
In this book, will it be a first person narrative voice in the same time of the telling, but then won’t that be confusing for readers of TKAM or are we just going to ignore this small detail and keep on reading? Because if it’s the same old Scout telling a new story, will it really be as meaningful the second time around when she’s no longer wistful on childhood fancy, but instead wistful on middle aged womanhood in a time when your only option was femininity.
I’m struggling with this juxtaposition even more because sources have claimed that this book was written before To Kill a Mockingbird and therefore the voice could either be the same or completely different, but it will still be wholly amateur. Lee was a complete amateur when TKAM and while she claims writing was a struggle, I’m not sure it had a very heavy editing hand.
4. Didn’t we think this manuscript was destroyed in a house fire?
Or it was flung out a window on a cold winter’s night? This is the question with all the conspiracy theories. I grew up thinking that Harper Lee was such a badass because through all the pressure and the requests, she stayed in her hobbit hole small town and refused to write anything else. I never thought I would see the day where she published something, especially because her sister Alice claimed that there was nothing else, the manuscript had been destroyed.
That’s why I find it really strange that all of a sudden Alice has passed away and Lee’s lawyer has found this manuscript (was it buried under hoarding tendencies, or placed in an unnamed folder, or locked in a safe this whole time, the one remaining thing that they can claim from a house fire). Just exactly, how did this come about. Some sources claim that Lee is so old that she would sign rights to anything at this point, the woman is 88 so we have to give her a break. Other sources claim that she’s “happier than hell” that the novel is finally getting published.
My concern is the general well-being of an author that has ALWAYS refused to sell the text, and the fact that she wrote this before TKAM (1960s) and in today’s editing world, the publisher might take some liberties. Now, you all know that I love Harper Collins (they’re my favorite publisher), but I also have a strong belief that writing is based on revision. In fact, writing is revision (I say this standing on my soap box). It’s one thing to be able to write some magnificent plot on a page, but it’s a whole other donkey to be able to take it apart, piecemeal it back together, cut and paste, organize, and create a story. Plot v. story. I’m worried that Harper Lee will have very little stake in this process and it will be in someone else’s hands in the revision.
If it is revised, edited, changed by the editors or the inner circle of Lee, how will the reader’s react, or find her within? And for Lee is this the copout that she’s looking for – if it sucks, she can claim they changed it – if it’s wonderful, then it’s hers and hers alone. I’m sure an 88 year old isn’t looking for a copout, but you get what I’m saying.
5. What ever happens to Boo Radley?
I know for a fact that we call our significant other’s “boo” because of Boo Radley. There is no other possible explanation for this. Boo was a shut-in with allegations of knife-weilding against him, and I think we’re all pretty sure that he murdered Bob Ewell after stalking (yes, in a sweet way with gum, pennies, and wax figurines) those children for most of a year. He’s a side character, but in my eyes, he is the book.
Without Boo Radley, there wouldn’t be the same suspense, we wouldn’t be comforted with his presence when Scout sneaks out, or she and Jem are traveling unaccompanied through dark woods. I wonder how Harper Lee is going to include him in this novel. Could he fall madly in love with Scout and we have this strange fan fiction moment where everyone’s dreams come true (I guess she would have to love him too then). Or will he still be a shut-in in a town that doesn’t understand him. Sources claim this book is a moment when Scout returns to her hometown (Macon) to visit her aging father. If Boo still lives next door, will she see him too or will Lee just gloss over his move to somewhere else and we never get Boo back. We never really got the after-effect of that death on his hands in TKAM. Scout, childish, grabs his hand and walks him home and that’s it. Well, what happened? Go Set a Watchman better figure this out.
6. I worry about the impact on future readers.
I know we won’t go out and order a class set for every school in America because it sounds like this isn’t going to be another coming-of-age story, the woman is already of-age (we read a lot of this stereotype…er…genre in high school literature), but I wonder how this will impact future readers. Will they feel compelled to push through Go Set a Watchman or even read it before the emotional impact that is To Kill a Mockingbird. Will this be like that time that JK Rowling tried to publish something else and no one liked it. I’m worried that this second book could ruin the ideal of To Kill a Mockingbird. Although it has problems, it is the pedestal of Great American Novel. Like Harry Potter is the middle grades fantasy equivalent to a greek god.
Harper Lee was going out on a legacy that is still founded today – we still teach TKAM to 9th graders – but with this new book, I worry about the possibility that that legacy could be tainted. I probably shouldn’t worry though, because she’s not worried with her adorably huge smile.
I can’t say for sure how I feel about this book until I’ve turned over the front cover and begun. I must remain gracious with my expectations, but they are numbered and many. I know Harper Lee is a bad mamba-jamba so I will live in hopes that she wouldn’t produce two million copies of something that she didn’t completely believe in.