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15 Minute Pulitzer: 1961, To our neighbors far and wide

by Craig B | Apr 11, 2016

cover of Harper Lee's To Kill a MockingbirdBook Review:  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

It is now probably impossible (for at least a few more years, anyway) to talk about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (which did win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961, by the way) without also talking about Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s 2015 sequel (and original idea) to the masterwork.  Controversy aside (if you’re like, ‘what controversy?’ just google 'Go Set a Watchman' and you’ll see), I found Go Set a Watchman interesting, timely, and a successful proof that Harper Lee really could write, proof that To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t just some sort of weird one-off.  That said, I think that To Kill a Mockingbird is probably my preferred work.  I’m not sure Go Set a Watchman, if it had been released in 1960 instead of Mockingbird, would have brought readers in in quite the same way. 
Watchman is more nuanced, more cerebral, and less able to get readers talking about the issues at the heart of it.  Mockingbird, on the other hand, runs deep yet is relatable to readers of all ages and tastes.  Scout and Jem and Dill and even Mrs. Morphine (Mrs. Dubose) engage us emotionally and intellectually as we witness the wide spectrum of their experiences.  The book implies many things and answers few, relying on the power of its central metaphor to indicate any direction our conclusions should maybe, perhaps take.  And yet there’s a directness to the main character’s, Scout’s, experiences and her perception of them that tells us explicitly that something is wrong in the world and that that wrong needs to be made right. 

Sound a little dreary?  Am I killing the vibe with all this verbiage? Well, here’s the thing, Lee’s story, To Kill a Mockingbird, is better than all of that, goes beyond all that I’ve described and, very simply, manages to leave us with hope.  No small feat for any story, let alone a story of such dark proportions.  In contrast, Go Set a Watchman’s accomplishment is to leave us with a very grown-up impression (and exhaustion) that there are no heroes in the world, there are only humans.  Disappointing as that may be, it is actually a disappointment in ourselves, our humanity.  Dreary again, huh? 

Well, seize hope.  Read To Kill a Mockingbird again and again and again.  It’s good enough to get better each time.  And when you’re up to it, every once in a while, set down the book you love that lives close to your heart and pick up Go Set a Watchman, the now semi-inseparable companion piece, the book you hope to be able to love but is kind of like an unpredictable new neighbor.  Like the gain of a new neighbor (and the implied loss of an old one) Watchman offers a more difficult and dreary experience, albeit one that is important and not altogether without hope.  Which is key.  Because Hope, despite the glorious reputation that Love enjoys, has much to do with making the world go ‘round.  It is often solely responsible for getting us out of bed in the morning, and, thankfully, more than we may realize, gives us the energy to try again to understand the point that our neighbor is so diligently trying to make.  Because neighbors, you can’t choose ‘em.  But you can continue to hope that you will eventually find them to be people you are able to love.

craig Craig B is a thirty-something lover of books, movies, and rock and roll whose grandmother still worries that he might not be eating enough. (Love you, Grandma!) He lives with his charming wife in the small town of Berne, IN (in sight of the clock tower) where he busies himself keeping the Roses of Sharon in check and training his chinchilla in the ancient arts of the Ninja. Craig’s current favorite book is Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.

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