Lost Mockingbird sequel sets book world abuzz

Double act: Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout as portrayed in the award-winning 1962 film.

After 55 years the reclusive author Harper Lee has announced that a sequel to her seminal work, To Kill a Mockingbird, will be published this summer. What can explain its enduring appeal?

‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ So says Atticus Finch to his daughter, Scout, in one of the 20th century’s most important and popular novels, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harper Lee ‘s 1960 seminal — and until now only — work is about racism, class and loss of innocence. Set in a dusty town in Depression -ravaged Alabama in the 1930s, it became a soaring success and instant classic upon publication. The novel’s indelible cast of well-loved characters — among them feisty six-year-old Scout and her honourable, heroic father, who defends a black man falsely accused of rape — won the affections of the world.

Yet Lee shunned the spotlight, describing the book's astronomical success as ‘just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected ... like being hit over the head and knocked cold.’ She withdrew from public life and politely refused to ever pick up her pen again.

Her reclusivity has only made this week’s announcement all the more sensational. This summer, after 55 years of silence, Harper Lee will release a sequel to the beloved classic.

The novel, Go Set a Watchman, actually written in the mid-1950s, was originally thought to be lost or destroyed. It is set some 20 years after the events depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird and features Lee’s central character, Scout, as she returns as a young woman to her home town.

The prospect of rejoining Scout’s story has delighted fans of the original masterpiece, which has sold over 40m copies worldwide, won the Pulitzer Prize, and been adapted into an Oscar-winning film. It’s a difficult act to follow. Yet whatever its quality, few have much doubt that the sequel will be the bestselling book of 2015.

Don't harp on

To Kill a Mockingbird is not without its flaws — and its detractors. Even the seemingly exemplary Atticus Finch has been accused by critics of double-standards and is not quite the paradigm of honour and champion of equality he is often made out to be. The book’s simplicity, its confused narrative voice and its nostalgia for an overly-sentimentalised childhood, has left many uninspired. ‘A blunt instrument’, one author acidly described it.

But the novel’s universal appeal and its power to resonate with a global audience is undeniable. Its vivid characters and descriptions give it true literary value. And as acrimonious race relations continue to boil in the US, the novel’s central theme; the importance of empathy, is more relevant than ever. It will be fascinating to see what the sequel, written in the 1950s, can teach us about race relations in the US today.

You Decide

  1. What explains To Kill A Mockingbird’s appeal?
  2. Are sequels ever as good as the original work? Or are they generally a bad idea?

Activities

  1. What do you think grown-up Scout will be like in the new book? What will she find when she returns home, and how will she feel? Write the opening chapter.
  2. Write a book review of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Some People Say...

“It is better to be silent than a fool.”

Harper Lee

What do you think?

Q & A

Is To Kill a Mockingbird worth a read?
Definitely, if only to make up your own mind about the quality of the sequel when it starts flying off the shelves in July. Industry insiders announced the news as being ‘as big as it gets for new fiction.’ It would be a shame to miss out on all the heated discussions about one of the most important books of the 20th century.
Isn’t it just being published for the money?
Perhaps. There is suspicion as to why Lee has decided to go ahead with the publication after all these years. Her sister, the lawyer Alice Lee, who ferociously protected Harper Lee’s estate from unwanted attention, passed away late last year. Many fear that the author may have been pressured into the release. While the news is exciting, your cynicism may not be entirely unfounded.

Word Watch

Atticus
Many famous lawyers say they were inspired to join the legal profession after reading Harper Lee’s novel and being introduced to Atticus Finch. One such example is Richard Matsch, the judge who presided over the Timothy McVeigh trial. Lee based the character on her own father, an Alabama lawyer who also represented black defendants in a highly publicised criminal trial.
Harper Lee
The author was left forgetful and nearly blind and deaf after a stroke in 2007. While she is often compared to Scout Finch, she has said in the past she is more like the reclusive hero of the book — Boo Radley.
Depression
The Great Depression, from 1929 to the 2nd World War, was the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in North America. At its nadir, some 13 to 15 million Americans were unemployed. Industrial production dropped by half, and soup kitchens and rising numbers of homeless people were a common feature in America’s towns.
Double-standards
Atticus defends Tom Robinson, but he accuses the complainant, Mayella Ewell, of being sexually aggressive and describes her as ‘trash’.

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