Lessons from a book


This May 19, 2010 photo provided by Penny Weaver shows Nelle Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, in her assisted living room in Montoeville, Ala. Amid concerns that Harper Lee was not involved in the decision to publish a second novel, HarperCollins issued a statement in which she says she is “happy as hell” about the response to her upcoming book, “Go Set a Watchman.” Lee stunned the world this week by agreeing to the release a second book since her 1960 classic. (AP Photo/Penny Weaver)

THE literary world was stunned this week by the announcement that Harper Lee will publish a second book soon, 55 years after her first and only novel To Kill A Mockingbird.

For book lovers, in particular fans of Mockingbird like myself, this is exciting news.

Mockingbird was an instant hit when it was published in 1960 and continues to be a bestselling title. It’s widely regarded as a masterpiece of American literature and won Lee a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

With fame and success thrust upon her, Lee retreated into private life and did not publish another book, despite the pleas and hopes from readers that she would write some more.

Which is why fans have reacted with eager surprise to the unexpected news that a second novel, Go Set A Watchman, will be released in July.

It’s not a new work but an earlier book that Lee wrote in the 1950s before Mockingbird, featuring many of the same characters and its well-loved heroine Scout as an adult. Lee set the manuscript aside on her editor’s advice, who was charmed by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood and persuaded her to write a novel from the young Scout’s point of view.

“I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,” she said in a statement released by the publisher.

The manuscript of Go Set A Watchman had been thought to be lost but was recently rediscovered.

“I hadn’t realised it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years,” Lee said.

Doubtless millions of readers who loved Mockingbird are also pleased and amazed by the publication of this book.

Go Set A Watchman is set 20 years later in the same fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, when the grown-up Scout returns from New York to visit her father Atticus Finch, a lawyer.

“She is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s atittude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood,” the publisher’s announcement said.

It sounds intriguing and I’m looking forward to the book’s release, having loved Mockingbird since I first read it in my school days. This was in the early 1990s, when there was no such thing as Google or Facebook for you to look up book reviews at the click of a button or get algorithm-calculated reading recommendations.

Yet I knew that Mockingbird was a classic, from such old-school methods as reading newspapers, recommendations from teachers and discussions with similarly literary-minded friends.

I was deeply affected by the book, which deals with racism, prejudice and injustice in America’s Deep South. Told through the eyes of a young Scout, the story revolves around Atticus’ efforts to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl.

It’s a fairly simple tale but powerfully told, as Scout and her brother Jem come to realise their father’s courage and integrity in his pursuit of justice, even as they grapple with growing up amid racial tensions and simmering prejudice.

“It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived,” Scout says of Atticus.

Over the years Atticus has become something of a literary hero (and apparently inspired a good number of people to become lawyers) through his quiet determination to fight for truth, justice and equality despite opposition and adversity, underlined by his kindness and a strong moral sense of right and wrong.

Sometimes, when issues of racial discrimination and injustice rear up, I think of Mockingbird and how Atticus dealt with similar problems.

In fact, in these times of growing polarisation and prejudice, we could learn a lesson or two from Mockingbird about the importance of standing up for others and doing what is right.

Because sometimes, all it takes are individual acts of courage and kindness to make a difference. As Atticus says: “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

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