“It is what it is, says love” is a phrase from a poem by the Austrian poet Erich Fried which echoed in my head while I was reading Harper Lee’s highly anticipated Go Set a Watchman. Published decades after her Pulitzer Prize-winning, internationally bestselling To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Lee’s only other novel to date, no matter what its merits or lack thereof, Go Set a Watchman is a literary milestone.
How the two books relate to each other reminds one of the ancient question about which came first: the chicken or the egg. It’s complicated. Or not? Although first to be published, To Kill a Mockingbird was written after Go Set a Watchman. Both tell the story of the Finch family, but they are set twenty years apart. In the late 1950s, Harper Lee was told by an editor who saw the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, where the main characters are all grown up but frequently return in their memories of an earlier time throughout the book, to rework it to focus on those childhood stories. This rewrite became To Kill a Mockingbird. Without any doubt there are good reasons why the initial book hasn’t seen the light of the published page until now. And all kudos to the editor who saw its potential back then and challenged Lee to write another novel which millions of readers across the world have come to love over the last half a century.
My personal love affair with To Kill a Mockingbird began in grade 8. I still have my school copy of the novel with a dust jacket I designed for it myself. It is one of only a handful of books which travelled with me across three continents to settle in Cape Town. I mention this to emphasise the important part that the tale of the siblings, Scout and Jem, and their wonderful father, Atticus Finch, plays in my life. Full of wisdom and tenderness, beautifully written, poignant and funny, the richly layered To Kill a Mockingbird is a true classic. It is set in the imagined county of Maycomb in Alabama of the 1930s. Through Scout’s innocent eyes, it tells the story of her and her brother’s fascination with their reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley, and their father’s fight for fairness for a black man accused of raping a white woman in the Jim Crow South. The children learn that it’s easy to fear what you do not understand and that more often than not law has very little to do with justice. But what they also discover is that there are certain things in life worth fighting for.
When I reread the novel recently, my love of it was reaffirmed. And when you love something so much, it is easy to have your heart broken if somebody tampers with it in ways which are uncomfortably unpredictable…
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