Listen to the Mockingbird

TKAMI’d just re-read To Kill a Mockingbird for a January 2015 book discussion when the news broke, two weeks later, that Harper Lee would publish a long-awaited second novel.

An astonishing development and the timing was a true coincidence, for To Kill a Mockingbird and the group’s animated discussion of it were still fresh in my mind.

After delving into Lee’s narrative of Depression-era, small town Maycomb, Alabama from the point-of-view of young Scout Finch, the nine of us around the long wooden table in the boardroom where the book group meets inevitably got around to discussing Harper Lee. Or to be more precise, we discussed the Harper Lee mystique. Essentially, we pondered why Lee never wrote another book. She’d achieved the greatest heights of literary accomplishment with her debut novel, and any new work would be measured against it. It must have seemed a formidable task.

Or perhaps she didn’t have anything else to say.

Everyone who has read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird has looked up from it in dazed admiration and asked, “This is a first novel? This is an only novel?”

Now, 55 years since Lee published her masterpiece which won the Pulitzer Prize and the hearts of millions of readers, it turns out that a first draft had survived in a safe place near Lee’s home. Assumed irretrievably lost, it was found in late 2014.

Go Set a Watchman will be published in July as a sequel, though it was completed a few years ahead of Mockingbird. Apparently, the story is distinct enough from Mockingbird that it stands alone as a separate account. How it will stack up against Mockingbird in terms of the author’s writing prowess is anybody’s guess. Lee rewrote her first draft at the request of an editor who liked the childhood flashbacks of an adult Scout returning to her hometown 20 years after the trial of Tom Robinson, and asked the first-time novelist to present the story in the point-of-view of the child Scout.

There might have been additional reasons the editor asked the aspiring author to rewrite the manuscript. Reportedly patchy and awkwardly structured, the process of revising it eventually took three drafts and two and a half years.

The true value of Go Set a Watchman might ultimately be to writers and editors who read it together with Mockingbird as a study in revision. It’s with that expectation that I will read Go Set a Watchman.

If it should turn out to be a treasured book in its own right, a long-awaited second novel worthy of its author’s duly lauded debut, then that will just be gravy.

“From now on it’ll be everybody less one–” Atticus teaches his young daughter Scout to do what’s right even if it means not following the crowd.


I Like to Think

Nina on Silver, cropped

Shadows were lengthening as the sun began to dip in the winter sky. The visit back home was nearly over, too quickly, after so much time away. Tomorrow I’d be on a plane winging across the continent to where I’ve made my own nest, and who knew how long it’d be till the next time I saw Mom.

I turned a page in an album and a soft-cheeked little girl in a red velvet dress with a white collar and short-cropped, dirty blonde waves peered contentedly at me from astride an amply dappled, shiny gray rocking horse.

“Silver!” I cried, excited as a three-year-old. In an instant I’m warmer than chamomile in a cozy-covered teapot.

“You used to rock on that rocking horse for hours,” Mom said.

(“Hi Ho Silver! Away! Giddy up giddy up giddy up up up! Giddy up giddy up giddy up up up!” I’d sing in time to the William Tell Overture, rocking till I lapsed into meditative contentment, rocking to the squeak-squeak of the springs.)

Over the left shoulder of my childhood self in the picture I gazed at the jalousie windows from which the sunny family room that led out to the patio and backyard derived the name my parents had given it: the jalousie room.

It’s tender, achy, magic, seeing that old photo again.

What evoked the barrage of emotion? The memory of that room? It was the lively center of the first house I lived in.

Knowing that my father, long since deceased, took that picture, proudly, of his only daughter and youngest child?

The photo itself? Developed from real film into a 2 x 3 print with a white border people carefully touched using only their fingertips when it was pulled from a wallet and handed to an acquaintance, as no doubt my father had done with this photo before it had been retired to a page in an album. Something you could touch, not just an image on a screen.

Or was it simply the memory of the cherished rocking horse?

“What became of Silver, Mom?”

My vague recollection is of the metal springs rusting after being left outside on the patio. But I wanted to hear her tell me something different.

“That was so long ago, how can I possibly remember,” Mom sighed. She added, after the faintest pause, “Maybe after you outgrew it, we gave it to another family who had a child.”

Before I turned the page in the album, I looked again at the rocking horse. I was sure it’d had a less kind fate. But maybe I remembered wrong about it being left out in the rain. Maybe another child after me had rocked for hours at a time on it, singing Giddy up giddy up giddy up up up! in time to the William Tell Overture.

At least, I like to think.