When a 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch, known by lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird as Scout, comes home from New York, where she’s lived since she left Maycomb to go to college, she struggles at first with the usual questions of a young woman who has returned to an exceedingly small southern hometown after having lived in a huge metropolis. But soon her struggle is not simply with the difference between small-town America and life in a sprawling, fast-paced city. Completely by accident, she finds that, while she has moved into the progressive northeast with its racial diversity, her small town never moved on and still struggles with a wide chasm between whites and blacks. To her even greater shock, Atticus, her septuagenarian father, in whom Jean Louise has always had complete faith, is among the leaders of a group, which she perceives as nothing better than a white supremacist organization. Jean Louise is forced to contemplate the possibility that her father is not the unblemished hero in whom she grew up believing.
When I first heard that a “lost” book by Harper Lee, author of one of my favorite books of all time (which is, in turn, the basis of one of my favorite movies of all time), I literally did a happy dance in front of my students. They were quite puzzled, even frightened, thinking I had possibly lost my mind or had a scorpion in my pants. When I told them the news, however, they, or at least the ones who’d actually read To Kill a Mockingbird, went as crazy as I did. But then I started reading more about the actual history of the book. In case anyone just returned from the moon and hasn’t heard, this book was essentially the first draft of what eventually became TKAM after basically being rejected by her publisher with the request that she rewrite it with emphasis on the childhoods of Scout and her brother Jem. I also read that there was some amount of controversy over whether Ms. Lee actually wanted the book to be published. I pre-ordered the novel, but with a more measured enthusiasm.
Then I made the mistake of reading an early review before the book even came out for the public and when it finally arrived in the mail, to be honest, I turned to the first page with high trepidation. Could I deal with it if Atticus Finch, one of the greatest characters ever created, turned out to actually have been a bigot the whole time? I just wasn’t sure. But as a bibliophile, I just couldn’t not read it. So I waded in. Though I actually cried at the end, I really understood why it got rejected by the publishers all those decades ago. And it wasn’t for the reason I thought it would be.
I found the story to be, almost to a shocking extent, racially progressive for that time period, especially from a southern writer. Get past the now-despised terminology and read without a sense of northeastern snobbery, and we find that Atticus and his fellow townsmen aren’t nearly as bigoted as one may have been led to believe. Is he perfect? No, not by any stretch. And therein lies the beauty of the story. It’s discovering that her flawless father is actually a real human being with imperfections and his share of ideas that seem almost criminally backward to a girl who has lived away from him for more than a decade in a large city teeming with people of literally all races living side by side that provides the satisfying conclusion to the story.
There really was a lot to love about this book in my opinion, and if I’d never read To Kill a Mockingbird, I probably would have at least liked it a lot. But I did, so I didn’t. I didn’t hate it. In fact, there were parts I really did love, such as the last act. As I stated earlier, it really did bring me to tears. My main complaint, though, is that it just took too long to get there. The first three-fourths of the story simply languished. The best part really was the humorous flashback with Scout and Jem and a childhood friend playing baptism in the neighborhood pond and then Scout becoming convinced she’s pregnant because a boy French-kissed her. It was easy to see why the publishers asked for more like those scenes. Without those, I may have lost interest by the time the emotionally satisfying end actually came.
What made it pale in comparison to Lee’s masterpiece is that it is exactly what it was described to be—a first draft. Even if she’d just tightened up the prose and improved the pacing without changing the plot, it would have been a better, more readable book. But what she did after her first attempt was rejected was so completely extraordinary, this almost pedestrian book has to suffer when read in that light. And, wish as I might, I just couldn’t read it any other way.
Do I recommend this book? Yes, though with reservations. I wouldn’t hesitate to endorse it for anyone who hasn’t read Lee’s true masterpiece yet. Read this and then read To Kill a Mockingbird and I believe you’ll love the latter even more. If you’ve already read what I like to think of as the true story of Atticus and Scout, then just try to forget that for a while and fight through the slow start. I think you’ll love the end as much as I did. I would give it three stars out of five.