Monday, July 20, 2015

A Great American Hero Gets Re-Written: Say It Ain't So Atticus!

"Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light."    –Vera Nazarian

I can't imagine my life without books and reading.  Can you?

From the first childhood book I loved oh so dearly ("Curious George Goes to the Hospital" by Margret and H.A. Rey), to the latest Stephen King novel I finished last night, "Finders Keepers", which kept me up past midnight for a week, books have always been a good friend. Ever dependable. One always nearby. So many books: sitting on a night stand table waiting to be picked up again. Books: scattered all over my house, in overflowing book cases and in piles stacked high on the floor. Too many books some might say, but not me.  Books of any kind, many kinds. 

Science fiction: I still remember at 16, reading my first Ray Bradbury short story while sitting at a lunch counter on break from my first job as a department store clerk. When I opened that book its tales of outer space and science gone wild enchanted me. Biography: I've learned what life was like for Walt Disney and Eleanor Roosevelt and John Wayne and Amelia Earhart. Novels: as a college sophomore I read "The World According to Garp" by John Irving, when I should have been studying. That book pulled me into its narrative grip like none before. I had to turn the page to find out what would next happen to T.S. Garp, whose best friend is a transsexual ex-football player; Garp, who was conceived by his mother in a late night dalliance with a comatose soldier in a hospital bed. I've since reread it and will probably do so again.

Because that's how it is with great books and the great characters within them.  Though "just" words on a page or images flickering on an e-reader, the stories and characters become real somehow to we who are blessed to get to know them. Great books can teach us life lessons. Expand and deepen our view of the world and ourselves. Help us escape when we need a break. Inspire us to live better lives because of the lives we read about on that page. 

So it was with trepidation I read last November that a new novel by "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee would be published this year. "Go Set a Watchman" came out July 14th.  Its initial printing of 2 million copies set a record for publisher HarperCollins and it is the fastest selling title in the history of Barnes and Noble.  The fact that Lee published just one novel before now, makes this book a seeming must read, especially for millions of devoted fans like me who absolutely love "...Mockingbird" and its tale of moral courage in racist 1930's Alabama. 

I want to be the main character in "To Kill a Mockingbird", Atticus Finch, the brave lawyer who stands up to a lynch mob which would hang an accused man.  I want to be like him, a widower who with care and gentle love raises his kids, Scout and Jem. I want to have Finch's compassion, possess his American idealism about sticking up for the powerless in a seemingly unwinnable fight. Finch: “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is that rare book which has achieved near universal critical acclaim and commercial success with its simple message of justice and moral fortitude and its tender depiction of small town life through the eyes of a ten year old girl.  A Pulitzer Prize winner later made into a classic film, the book is read by practically every American adolescent in English class. It still sells thousands of copies and has been in print for fifty five years.

So even though I am that most devoted of Lee's fans, I don't know if I will read this new book, which is not so much "new" as a much earlier unformed draft of "To Kill A Mockingbird". Reviews report that "Go Tell A Watchman" takes place when Scout is all grown up and Finch is now a  bitter and racist old man, who (God forbid!) even attends a  Ku Klux Klan meeting.


What just happened? The KKK? Why the need for a re-write?  At 89 and largely infirmed, Lee isn't up for interviews to explain her decision. Her agents and publishers will certainly profit from the book, money in the bank, that's for sure.  Why transform an American hero into an American scoundrel? Why cut down, edit, erase such a beloved literary character? What's next? Ishmael puts down his harpoon and joins Greenpeace. Huck Finn turns in Jim for the reward money. Jay Gatsby lives out his years as a feeble minded senior in a Long Island assisted living facility.  Romeo and Juliet skip the poison and elope to Las Vegas. 

I guess I'm just not ready to run out and get a copy of "Go Tell A Watchman".  Not yet.

For me, the best books are sacred somehow, whole, complete, stories which enlarge the human heart, encourage the human struggle, and mirror our beautiful and broken world.  Beloved books like "To Kill A Mockingbird" entertain, yet also, as we the reader enter into an alternate universe: we are changed for the better.  That's why I'll keep my unrevised version of Atticus Finch for now. He is much too dear to me to let go of.

What book are you reading these days?  Enjoy it. Dive right in. Love it even, for you never know. That one book just might change your life forever.  Thanks Atticus.


No comments:

Post a Comment