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Posts Tagged ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

wildelake“When my brother was eighteen, he broke his arm in an accident that ended in another young man’s death.”

If the first line of Laura Lippman’s new novel Wilde Lake (Morrow, review copy) reminds you of the first line of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, you’re not wrong. Lippman’s layered story of family mystery and mythology, past crimes and present consequences, was inspired by Lee’s classic, and it works as both a reimagining and homage.

We don’t usually think of  To Kill a Mockingbird as a crime novel, but of course it is: A white woman, Mayella Ewell, accuses a black man, Tom Robinson, of rape, and a white lawyer, Atticus Finch, defends Robinson in 1930s small-town Alabama. But there is so much more to the book as young Scout Finch narrates the events of three years, especially her adventures with older brother Jem and visiting neighbor Dill as regards the reclusive Boo Radley.

There are recognizable counterparts to all of these characters in Wilde Lake, but the time frame has been updated — present day, with flashbacks to the late 1970s — and the setting moved to the Maryland town of Columbia, a planned community. Lippman braids an even tighter and more complicated story than Lee, shifting between past and present, as narrator Luisa “Lu” Brant, the new state’s attorney for Howard County, discovers a surprising link between the murder case she is trying now and the tragic events of the fall of 1980. That’s when a family friend was accused of a crime, her older brother AJ broke his arm and a man died. Lu has always thought she knew what happened then, having overheard her father Andrew Brant, who was state’s attorney at the time, question AJ and his friends. Race and class weren’t really part of it, Lu thought as a child. But the truth is more elusive than Lu ever imagined, and once known, can’t be unknown.

Most of this unraveling takes part in the book’s last third, and it’s the most emotionally involving and suspenseful section because Lippmann abandons the familiar confines of Mockingbird, making the source material her own. Not that the earlier part isn’t interesting: Lippman artfully meshes scenes inspired by Lee’s story with the one Lu tells. Like Scout before her, Lu adores her father, tags after her brother, wonders about her mother, pesters the housekeeper. She gets sent to her room for questioning a classmate’s table manners. She watches neighbor Miss Maud’s house burn down. It makes perfect sense that she grows up to be a fiercely competitive lawyer who, after the early death of her husband, moves back in with her father and calls on housekeeper Teensy to help care for her young twins. She is good at compartmentalizing, even managing a secret liaison once or twice a month. When a homeless man with mental issues is accused of breaking into an apartment and killing the middle-aged woman who lives there, Lu sees a a case she can win handily.

Lippman wrote Wilde Lake before Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was published last year. I didn’t care for Watchman, but not because of Lee’s version of grown-up Scout and a racist Atticus. Rather, it read like an unedited first novel, lacking Mockingbird’s all-of-a piece quality. No such problem with Wilde Lake. It is carefully wrought, an arresting crime novel that explores changing attitudes about race and sex and mental illness, about the nature of truth, the fallibility of heroes. Inspired storytelling.

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WatchmanSo, you say you are disappointed and disillusioned to learn that the Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s newly published book is a racist? Imagine then that you are his daughter Jean Louise, aka Scout, discovering that the father you have worshiped for 26 years has feet of clay.

But you don’t have to walk around in her skin, imagining the consternation, devastation and anger of such a betrayal. Lee does it for you in Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins, purchased e-book), an unsettling portrait of a young woman going home to the South of the mid-1950s and finding it’s not “the warm and comfortable world” she remembers.  Of course, that small-town Alabama of Scout’s childhood is what Lee so splendidly evoked in her classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman, written several years before Mockingbird, is a more conventional coming-of-age story that was rejected by publishers until editor Tay Hohoff suggested that Lee set it 20 years earlier and rewrite it from young Scout’s perspective.

Speculation has it that Hohoff may have wanted the changes to make the book more palatable to a wider audience, and thus more saleable. Could be, but I contend that she saw in Watchman’s awkwardly structured series of set pieces what Mockingbird could be. For that, we should all be grateful. Although there is much that is familiar about Watchman — descriptions of places and people, a certain tone and turn of phrase — it is a separate book, not a sequel or prequel, written in the third person. The two books share the main characters of Scout, Atticus, Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack, but Jem and Dill appear only in flashbacks, Calpurnia has retired except for one pivotal scene, there is no Boo Radley. Tom Robinson’s trial, the centerpiece of Mockingbird, is a couple of paragraphs with a different outcome. Henry Clinton is the major new character. A young lawyer taken under Atticus’ wing, he is Scout’s longtime friend and possible future husband.

The plot, such as it is, meanders over the the first three days of Jean Louise’s visit and her not fitting in. The old house, with its wide porch and chinaberry trees, has been torn down and replaced by an ice cream parlor. A “morning coffee” given by corseted Aunt Alexandra and attended by perfumed ladies fills Jean Louise with horror and despair. But her seeing Atticus and Henry at a white citizen’s council meeting condoning a segregationist’s hate speech is what guts her, leading to confrontations with both men, a follow-up with Uncle Jack and a hard reckoning with herself.

This then is very much Jean Louise’s story. In Mockingbird, she is the narrator and Atticus the hero, the book’s moral compass and conscience. In this book, her world is rocked when her conscience parts company with his. Although it was written in the 1950s and is obviously a period piece, its publication is remarkably timely as part of our ongoing national conversation about race. I disagree, though, that this is the book Lee meant to write and publish all along.

Much has always been made that To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t read like a first novel. It’s so all-of-a-piece, so assured. It’s been one of my favorite books since I was 10. That hasn’t changed upon many rereadings and I don’t expect it to. Go Set a Watchman is an unedited first novel, flawed and unsubtle. Promising.

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palmettodoveThis was going to be a different post when I started writing it last week. It was called “Summer Lowdown,” and it was about how I was homesick for the South Carolina Lowcountry — family, friends, food — after reading four beach books set in my favorite part of the world. But that was before nine people were shot in a downtown Charleston church, leaving me heartsick that such a hate crime could happen in this day and age in the United States, especially in a city I hold dear.

Many people have written many things about Charleston in the week since the tragedy, and I’ve read news accounts, blog posts, editorials and essays in an attempt at understanding. I’ve heard the powerful words of forgiveness from the victims’ families. I’ve talked with friends who are as surprised and saddened as I am about the ignorance and racial antagonism still showing up on social media. I grew up in the Carolinas and have lived in the South most of my life. My grandmother told me how her mother remembered being a child and her daddy — my great-great grandfather — coming home from the Civil War, walking down the dirt road to their lowcountry farm. I went to college with classmates who had Confederate flag beach towels.

I’m not posting the reviews of the four books today. They’re all good escapist fiction, and I’ll wrap them up with other summer reading picks in the weeks ahead. But if you want something good to read and think about, I’ll make two recommendations. One is something Josephine Humphreys wrote about growing up in the segregated South and posted to Facebook last night. You can use this link to where I shared it on my timeline: Charleston

Humphreys writes about what changed her. To Kill a Mockingbird started the change in me. My aunt gave me Harper Lee’s novel when I was in the fifth grade, and it’s been a favorite ever since, read so many times I know passages by heart. I was planning on a reread before Go Set a Watchman comes out next month. I think I’ll start now.

 

 

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Shortly after I started writing this blog in January, someone suggested I write about lupus more.  No, I replied, the whole point of the blog was to get away from lupus. Having lupus is boring. I’ve been foggy and lightheaded and achy the last few days. Not surprising since I’d been going full-tilt boogie for a week or so, and this is the way my body responds when I’ve pushed myself too hard and tried to act like a well person.

That being said, I haven’t been reading much, just zoning out to reruns of Law and Order and HGTV. I DVRd the premiere of Treme on HBO because I could feel myself falling asleep. The same with Glee. Happy I did because I really like both of them.

I also thought on things literary that I might like to blog on if I ever have the energy. Like, it’s National Library Week, and all across the country, when people need them most, library branches are closing, and hours and personnel are being cut.  A crying shame. (I get mopey when I don’t feel good).

Also, this year’s the 50th anniversary of the publication of my all-time-favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird. My aunt gave me a copy when I was 10, and I’ve been reading and rereading it ever since. Rick Bragg has a good article about author Harper Lee and his memories of the book in the most recent issue of Reader’s Digest. First time I’ve picked up the magazine in years — it was at a friend’s house — although it was a staple of my growing-up. My grandmother gave a subscription to my father for Christmas. In turn, I gave her the large-print version.

Should I get an e-book reader? If so, Kindle, Nook, Sony, iPhone, iPad? Let me know what you think. I’m planning a two-week plane/motorcoach/train trip this summer to the Canadian Rockies this summer, and I really don’t have room to haul a bunch of books. (FYI, this is a low physical activity-rated trip; I’m not hiking. Gone are those days.) Maybe I could read e-books of the five books that won the Pulitzer Prize this week because I haven’t read any of them, which is like the first time ever since I can remember. Not that my memory’s too good right now.  See, I told you lupus was boring… In fact, I’m going to take a nap as soon as I find a suitable image of my brain on lupus to illustrate this post.

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