In July 2015 Harper Lee’s novel ‘Go Set A Watchman’ (GSAW) was published. It is regarded in close association with her classic début novel published 55 years ago, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ (TKAM) and is variously described as a companion book, first draft of TKAM, sequel etc. It attracted controversy in the manner the central character of Atticus Finch, a middle-aged lawyer defending a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, has aged into a racist bigot himself.
Not wanting to miss the memories of Atticus as the hero who was blemishless and a superman, I decided to simply re-read the novel again. GSAW may be a meta-reference to the tale and possibly there are theories that credibly explain the difference between a 8-year-old girl ‘hero-worshipping’ her father and a 26-year-old woman discovering that he did indeed have feet of clay, but I prefer to live in the illusionary world of TKAM for the moment. True heroes are such rare commodities that we can’t let go of them easily.
To Kill A Mockingbird handles a serious subject in a very casual manner – we are introduced to narrator, a 6-year-old girl popularly called Scout, who is a Tomboy and lives in the sleepy Southern town in the USA, Maycomb. Hers is a small little world that she fondly shares with her elder brother Jem and her friend-cum-fiance Dill. Her father – Atticus Finch – is a lawyer and a widower who tries his best to raise the kids on his own with the able assistance of the housekeeper, Calpurnia.
Finch is quite a character – he has a dry wit about him, he seems to be perceptive in a manner of understanding others well and being tolerant about their prejudices and foibles. He tries to ensure discipline with the kids while letting them express themselves quite freely. In particular he has no hassles with Scout being a Tomboy – he does seem to be the ideal father.
Scout takes her on a journey where we learn about her school (a great satire of the futile ‘rote’ approach taken her by teacher), the neighbourhood and the carefree school vacations. The story seems to be a bit adrift but Lee employs a cunning tool to keep our attention going – while the narration is from the point of view of a young girl, the observations and commentary are made in a manner using Jem and Atticus in particular whereby we can understand the undercurrents and the adult world of the society.
The story becomes interesting when Atticus is tasked with the job of defending a black young man who has been wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. Atticus excels in the courtroom – his manner of cross-examination reminds one of the famous Perry Mason cases. He succeeds in establishing the flimsiness of the charge and of course based on such circumstantial evidence, the odds should favour the accuse but for the bias prevalent in the society. And so it turns out to be since the Jury finds the accused guilty. The case may head for appeal but a tragedy cuts short the story.
What Scout admires along with the average reader is Atticus taking on the world – it’s a one man army and he retains his composure & wits while duelling the odds. Indeed he comes out tops and is the true ‘hero’ of the novel though he battles for a lost cause. He even protects the kids particularly Scout from the interventions made by their meddlesome aunt.
The story ends on a note of optimism – the society is not changed yet but the Atticus household is strong and united to face the challenges of the days to come. TKAM is everything that is missing in GSAW when we think of the central character Atticus Finch – indeed the transformation from a hero to a villain is a tough one to accept. Many readers may prefer to nurse their old memories and not read about a hero’s fall from grace – for a man to be reduced to a shadowy caricature due to the ravages of time and age.