Columns > Published on March 11th, 2015

Controversy Be Damned: My High Hopes for Harper Lee's New Novel

I couldn't have been older than twelve the first time I picked up Harper Lee's iconic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I don't remember why I started reading it when I was still so young, years before it would have been assigned English Lit reading. Perhaps my mother, a lifelong Gregory Peck fan, had been watching the movie version, and perhaps I sat and watched it, drawn into the story despite the grainy black and white. Perhaps I'd seen my older brother, our family's brainiac, reading it, and I, ever the competitive little sister, read it to keep up. 

Or perhaps even then I was drawn to the stories that would change my life.

Regardless of the reasons, the fact remains: I picked it up, I started reading, and in the age before the explosion of YA novels, Mockingbird became the book that defined my adolescence. I was drawn to the characters, first and foremost. Scout, of course, because she was a tomboy like me, and Dill, because he reminded me of a friend I loved dearly. On Jem I had a schoolgirl crush, and to me, Atticus and Calpurnia were each the epitome of honesty and integrity. I wanted to know these people in real life. I wanted to model myself after their good sides, and protect myself from the bad.

Moreover, I wanted to help Boo Radley come out of the shadows, just like Scout and Jem and Dill.

This is an important book, not just to me, but to the literary world in general. I know I'm not the only one waiting for it with bated breath.

I lived in the northeast back then, and Lee opened my eyes to the fact that there were other regions in this country. Different regions. Regions so foreign that to inhabit them would mean expatriation from my home, and emigration to a new one. Through Lee's words I came to love the South despite its many flaws, and I think it's no surprise that I live there now.

Her world was so rich, and so vulnerable. It felt like — Poof! — it could all go up in smoke, the smoke of a fire during a southern town's historic snowstorm. I think even then I knew it was a world that would ultimately disappear, to be replaced by something different. Something potentially better, but also with the potential for ugliness and hatred. The nostalgia written into her story, that longing for something that had already changed, drew me in. That world was better somehow, and also worse. It was that balance, that shift from one thing to another, all seen through the eyes of a child younger even than me, that kept me coming back for more.

Since then, I've re-read Mockingbird annually. That would mean I've read it approximately...well, I won't tell you how many times, as a lady never reveals her age, but suffice to say, I've read it a lot. It's always tops on my favorite book lists, and I believe, wholeheartedly, that Harper Lee is a genius.

Thus it was excitement I felt — pure, unadulterated, squee-worthy excitement — upon hearing that, 55 years after the publication of her masterpiece, Harper Lee will be releasing a new novel. 

Or rather, an older novel.

She's releasing the book she wrote before Mockingbird — as the story now goes, this was the book that spawned it. When her editors fell in love with the backstory present in this new/old novel, Lee was inspired to go back in her main character's timeline, to write about the childhood that shaped her. 

Man, that's heady stuff. This is the book that inspired the creation of my all-time favorite. When I heard, I couldn't believe it.

I took to the Twitters and the Facebooks to express my glee, my excitement. "I can't believe it," I wrote. "I finally get to read new words by Harper Lee!"

And then came the controversy. Industry professionals, the people of Lee's hometown, readers one could believe that, 55 years after the release of Mockingbird, Lee was finally willing to release something else. Notoriously private, and often adamant about the fact that she'd never again publish, it was jarring to many that she would finally let more of her words see the light of day.

And I heard the controversy, and the conversation, and the doubt, and even the vitriol, and my heart fell.

Because I want to believe that Lee wants to release this book. I want to believe she's in her right mind, and this really is the long-lost story that spawned such an iconic work of literary art.

Lee opened my eyes to the fact that there were other regions in this country. Different regions. Regions so foreign that to inhabit them would mean expatriation from my home.

And the thing is? I do. 

I've read through both sides of the story, and I want to believe this is something good. I do believe it's something good.

And so my hopes for Go Set a Watchman, the long-awaited "sequel" to To Kill a Mockingbird?

They're unbelievably high.

Soooooo high.

Painfully high.

But you know what? I think she'll deliver. I really do. I mean, she delivered a masterpiece once before. Why couldn't she do it again. Let's all have a little faith. Here's what I'd love to see in Go Set a Watchman:

We already know that the story follows a grown-up Scout Finch as she travels home to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit with her father, Atticus. Per Wikipedia, she'll grapple with his view of the world, of life. The title references a bible verse, with a "watchman" being someone or something's moral compass.

Atticus Finch indeed.

Now, we've already seen Scout Finch grapple with her father's place in that small society, but I imagine we'll get to see more of it. I hope we do. Perhaps it won't be a courtroom drama this time. Perhaps it won't be something quite as stark as black and white.

But you know what? I kind of hope it is.

Go Set a Watchman was apparently written in the mid-1950s, at the beginning of the United States Civil Rights movement. 1955 was the year of the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott. Blacks and whites were still highly segregated, especially in the south. Gays were still closeted, persecuted. The country was mired in a decade of faking-it-till-you-make-it, with women returning to their homes after years of work inspired by World War II and Rosie the Riveter. 

To say that Go Set a Watchman was written during tempestuous years would be an extreme understatement.

And that tempest is what I want to see, brewing up in this novel. I want to see the conflict of a working woman dealing with her small town roots while trying to make it in the big city. I want to see racial tensions. I want to see a woman struggle with the sexuality of her friend (I want Dill to come out of the closet, just like the friend he reminded me of eventually did). 

And I want to see not just Atticus become the moral compass. I want Scout to find her way there as well.

I want these words to be as beautiful as the words of Mockingbird. I want to be able to revel in the language, the simplicity. I want the characters to each have their own story (think of Mrs. Dubose in Mockingbird — she's a minor character, sure, but so well fleshed out I can see her, hear her, smell her, when I read her chapters).

I want to see if Jem turned out okay, with his shortened left arm and his undying devotion to football. 

I want to see if Uncle Jack Finch ever got Miss Maudie Atkinson to marry him.

I want to see if Aunt Alexandra ever took off her corset and integrated into the brave new world.

I want to see the influence of a world being reshaped by atomic energy.

I want to see Calpurnia's church again, two decades later, filled with love and laughter.

I want I want I want.

There's so much I want from this book. I know I'm not the only one. To me it's no small wonder it's taken Lee so many years to publish it. The fact that it was recently "found" notwithstanding...even if she'd had it, from my understanding, she'd never have let it see the light of day in the years after Mockingbird's release. That book was just too beloved, and sequels so often go sour. I'd be terrified too.

But most of all, I want this book to be from Lee's beautiful, imaginative mind, and I want her to want to release it.

This is an important book, not just to me, but to the literary world in general. I know I'm not the only one waiting for it with bated breath.

And I know she'll deliver. 

Maybe it's just a feeling, or maybe it's just hope. But Harper Lee will deliver in Go Set a Watchman.

So yes. I'll be at the bookstore (or anxiously awaiting the mailman) on July 14, 2015, ready to get my mitts on this book. I'll probably beg someone to keep my daughter for me that afternoon, so I can spend it reading. I'll check back in with you then to let you know what I thought, but until then please know: this book means something, especially to a girl like me.

About the author

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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