‘Finch’ fries, ‘Boo’ burgers as Harper Lee’s hometown greets new novel

14 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Finch’ fries, ‘Boo’ burgers as Harper Lee’s hometown greets new novel.

In the southern hometown of author Harper Lee, a freight truck unloaded the first of 7,000 copies of “Go Set a Watchman” at a small bookshop just ahead of midnight, minutes before Tuesday’s release of Lee’s first published novel in 55 years. “You lie,” she said, according to her longtime friend Prof. Fan Valerie Walcott, 52, who was counting down the hours until midnight when the book was released, said she understood Lee’s decision to portray Atticus as imperfect, adding: “There’s absolutely no way that he cannot be a product of his environment.” Author Joanna Trollope, who took part in a panel discussion at the Piccadilly launch, urged readers to be “grown up” in their understanding of the new novel.

Also at the launch was was Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights organisation Liberty, who said To Kill a Mockingbird had inspired her to become a lawyer. The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wasted no time expressing her shock that in the first version of the novel that was eventually released as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” beloved father and enlightened rural Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch was a bigot. At midnight, outside Ol’ Curiosities and Book Shoppe in downtown Monroeville, shopkeeper Spencer Madrie signaled to a crowd mingling with Gregory Peck look-alikes waiting for the sequel to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Mockingbird.” “I’ve had people calling from as far away as from England looking for the book early,” said Madrie, who will emboss copies of the book so folks will know it was bought in Lee’s hometown. But this, like all key pieces of important literature, asks us key questions about ourselves,” one man said. “To have something that is a property that was unknown about for such a long time to be released is so huge and the interest surrounding this is just phenomenal,” Lita Weissman said.

Referring to Michael Gove’s controversial move to push American literature off the school syllabus, Ms Abbott said: “I do not think everything Michael Gove says is wrong but it was very, very foolish to try and ban books.” Bookshops around the country have been staying open all night to cope with demand. Although we moved away when I was a small child, my family returned often to visit my parents’ best friends, who lived two doors down from the famous author.

Because the book wouldn’t be available to the general public for days, we had only the analysis of a few privileged critics to go by. “The depiction of Atticus in ‘Watchman’ makes for disturbing reading, and for ‘Mockingbird’ fans, it’s especially disorienting,” Ms. Kakutani writes. “Scout is shocked to find, during her trip home, that her beloved father, who taught her everything she knows about fairness and compassion, has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares her horror and confusion. How could the saintly Atticus … suddenly emerge as a bigot?” So after half a century being celebrated as our most endearing symbol of liberal paternalism, Atticus Finch is suddenly revealed in the pages of this previously unknown manuscript as (drum roll, please) … a typical Southern gentleman of the times. When I grew up to be a young journalist who happened to hail from Harper Lee’s hometown, every editor at every job I had assigned me to use my Monroeville connections to get an interview with the famous recluse. She’s the same independent, headstrong person she was as a child who idolised her widowed father, Atticus Finch, the wise, kind lawyer who defended a black man falsely convicted of rape; the moral centre of Mockingbird.

Instead of the anachronistic saint of “Mockingbird” whose progressive ideas about race in backwater Alabama in the 1930s could only have existed in science fiction novels, the Atticus of “Watchman” is a flawed, white Southerner filled with racial anxieties that will be familiar to bigots and xenophobes. Dutifully, I would write a letter explaining who I was, and why I was the one journalist who should be allowed to score the elusive interview with her. There will be public readings at almost every corner, lawn parties with lemonade and mint juleps, and “Finch” fries and “Boo” burgers on offer at a local café. In other words, in the original version of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Harper Lee portrayed Atticus the way a lawyer of his race and class in the deep South during the 1950s would have actually comported himself. “Watchman,” according to early reviews, is about the tension between a grown-up Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her elderly father as their deeply racist Alabama town resists inroads by the insurgent civil rights movement.

The book comes at a time when the nation is again in the grips of confronting the American South’s underbelly of racism after the slaying of nine parishioners at Charleston church at the hands of a white supremacist. “The timing is accidental, but this is a conversation that America needs to have,” Flynt said. “When her first book came out in 1960, we were finally energized on race. Lee’s editor, didn’t believe American consumers were sophisticated enough to read such an uncompromising indictment of American racism when it was submitted for publication in 1957. It was part of everyone’s consciousness.” “It’s a very different and flawed Atticus,” Flynt said. “You have an older man who was dealing with his world of the 1950s.

But also, among the the people I have spoken to, many are prepared to accept that Finch is a fictional character and a complicated man who might have changed over time. A few years later, I published my first novel, A World Made of Fire, a Southern Gothic tale written in iambic pentameter, set in the Alabama countryside of the early 20th century.

While Mockingbird was narrated by Scout 20 years earlier and seen through her innocent and sometimes mistaken eyes, Watchman is told in the third person and observes Jean Louise coming to terms with change. You have to remember what Atticus Finch himself said, that to understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” he tells me. She remarked on the coincidence of “you, me, and Truman all from the same little town.” She said nice things about my writing and wished me luck going forward. Through all the joy and pain of first publication, Miss Nelle’s kind words made me feel as if I had been officially welcomed into the club. “HELL NO” had magically become “HELL YES.” I finally did get to meet her, on a hot summer day when my Daddy and I were having lunch at David’s Catfish House in Monroeville.

Julia Stroud was the first to collect a book in Monroeville, Harper Lee’s home town, after arriving at 7.30pm for the midnight launch, Rob Crilly reports: I think it’s very exciting for our county. There are familiar flashback scenes from Mockingbird, such as the history of the Finch family estate, and the trial of Tom Robinson, who is unnamed and acquitted in this one-page summary of the case. As she once secretly watched her father in court, Jean Louise watches him now at a meeting of the segregationist Citizens’ Council, and she flies into a rage of disillusionment. Spencer Madrie, who runs the Monroeville bookshop with his mother, appears on the steps to announce that people will have to be patient. 2000 copies have been delivered so some customers may have to wait a day.

But just as his decency in Mockingbird did not make him a saint, a calm reading of this book can find him still a conservative and pragmatic but decent man who supports justice and free speech. He’s no longer too good to be true, but he is “real.” Just as supporters of the Confederate battle flag insist it is a genteel heirloom of Southern heritage, the Atticus Finch of the last half century has been a fake, too, in a way. I’m sure [my grandmother] would have said, ‘We need an editor!’ I will read both versions side by side and see what I think about it.” The main controversy surrounding Go Set a Watchman has been the portrayal of one of Mockingbird’s heroes, Atticus Finch, as being a whole lot darker than the champion of racial justice depicted in her first novel.

It jumps around too much between present and past, has some drawn-out passages about children’s games and a school dance, and too much preachy dialogue. There was a collective intake of breath around the Alabama town that has long traded on its association with the novel and its central hero, Rob Crilly writes from Monroeville.

In it Tonja B Carter discusses finding the manuscript and tries to lay to rest the persistent notion that the novel is being released against Lee’s will. “You do not change her mind,” said Ms Carter. But here is Lee’s dry humour and some sparkling portraits of characters we might never have known, including Jean Louise’s eccentric uncle Jack Finch.

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