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Plucking Feathers from an Innocent?

‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but…sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,’ warns Miss Maudie in the acclaimed To Kill a Mockingbird, an admonition that infects the reader with deliciously sharp prickles of justice and courage. Harper Lee’s spirited song has been translated into forty languages, sold more than thirty million copies and resonates as a defining novel in the school curriculum today.

A defining novel it remains, but will the unexpected news of a sequel smudge its lucid legacy as a stand-alone novel of unique integrity? Go Set a Watchman was written prior to the great classic, but details the return of an older Scout to Alabama from New York to visit her father. To be released in July it has provoked a ripple in literary and public audiences, already topping Amazon’s best-seller charts.

Curiously, the manuscript was simply ‘found’ by Lee’s friend and attorney, Tonja Carter. What is even stranger is that Lee’s sister, the protective wing which carefully shaded Lee from public scrutiny, passed away just three months ago. And to further this last curiosity Lee has denied interviews since 1964, confiding in Oprah that she despises being compared to her plucky protagonist, Scout, claiming ‘I’m really Boo’. After conspicuously avoiding the limelight for fifty one years, Jem’s observation seems pertinent: ‘I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time…it’s because he wants to stay inside’.

In light of this Lee’s ruffling of her feathers in the public glare, claiming she is ‘happy as hell’ about it, seems jarringly contrived. Sadly Lee was left nearly blind and deaf, with a poor memory following a stroke in 2007. According to Gawker’s Michelle Dean in last July, ‘Lee has a history of signing whatever’s put in front of her, apparently sometimes with Carter’s advice’.

Carter will certainly share the profits, and is diligently publicising the novel, whilst friends from Lee’s hometown express their scepticism regarding Lee’s complicity. Sam Therrell, the owner of a favourite local restaurant of Lee’s, stated that she ‘was always very clear that she didn’t want another book to be published, that she was happy out of the limelight and away from the media focus. So it’s very surprising to hear that she is suddenly so keen for this new book to come out.’

Sheriff Tate remarks to Atticus on the subject of Boo’s saving Scout from Mr Ewell: ‘To my way of thinkin’, Mr. Finch, taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an‘ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that’s a sin’. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge new spheres of injustice to those rooted in 1930s South America. In a callous, artificial world of celebrity culture, I feel certain Atticus would show measured rectitude in favour of quite a different mockingbird.

Harper Lee
Harper Lee. Copyright: Wikimedia