Meet the Finches, 55 years On

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Return to Maycomb In the sequel, Lee turns lawyer Atticus into a racist. Photo: AFP
Return to Maycomb In the sequel, Lee turns lawyer Atticus into a racist. Photo: AFP

When a Pulitzer Prize winning author in hibernation for more than half a century announces the release of a sequel to her magnum opus, a little frenzy and anticipation among literary circles is assured. Go Set a Watchman comes 55 years after Harper Lee’s widely popular novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Released on 14 July, the sequel could have been on our shelves long back if it weren’t for Lee’s publisher. Believed to have been written two years prior to the publication of her bestseller in 1960, the text of Go Set a Watchman was part of Lee’s original draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. However, the publisher advised Lee to compile only the flashback sections comprising the reminiscences of the protagonist-narrator into a separate novel and thus was created the Pulitzer-winning classic. The rest, as they say, is history.

The novel attracted a deluge of readers and 30 millionplus copies have been sold so far. Its popularity soared with translations in 40-odd languages. The frenzy that has greeted Go Set a Watchman even before its release owes much to the indelible imprint that Mockingbird has left on the minds of generations of readers.

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Go Set a Watchman | Harper Lee – HarperCollins

Mockingbird was set in Alabama in southern USA during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Despite the remote setting in a bygone era, the book has gracefully transcended time and place and tugs at the heartstrings of readers even today. Part of the reason for its enduring appeal among readers across age groups and geographical locations is the transparent authenticity with which Lee etched her characters such as the six-year-old Scout (Jean Louise Finch) and her father Atticus Finch, coupled with the theme of interracial struggles and fight for justice that rouses empathy and provokes critical thought.

Declared by some as a sequel and others as a narrative following an alternative timeline to that of her debut novel, Lee’s fans around the world are eager to see how the characters have shaped up. And to whet their appetite, the publishers have first released a little teaser — the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, which shows Scout as a grown-up woman returning from New York to her fictional hometown Maycomb in the backdrop of the civil rights movement.

Scout, who as a sixyear- old was often spotted in overalls and constantly advised by her elders to be more lady-like, is now in her 20s and still retains her androgynous manners. She “still moved like a thirteenyear- old boy and abjured most feminine adornments”, thereby inviting her “aunt’s sniff of disapproval”, and continues to abide with the moral lessons she had imbibed from her father.

What came as a shock to most Lee fans was the absence of one major character — Scout’s brother Jem. Only a few lines into the first chapter and the reader is informed that Jem is dead. Even more disturbing is the metamorphosis of Atticus from a lawyer seeking justice for the Blacks to an outright racist attending Klu Klux Klan-like meetings. Often regarded as the moral centre of Mockingbird, Atticus is one of the most celebrated characters in American literature. In fact, the film adaptation in 1962 portrayed him as the central protagonist — a role played by Gregory Peck.

Atticus’ portrayal as a racist has led to some apprehension among Lee’s fans. “I am not interested in reading about a racist who was the moral compass of the original novel,” says one of them. Yet, some readers have taken this twist in a positive spirit and feel that the change speaks to the human condition.

Whether or not Go Set a Watchman matches the expectations set by the success of its glorious prequel is to be seen, but the huge number of responses to the first chapter, coupled with thousands of pre-orders, sounds like a good start.

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