I first read “To Kill a Mockingbird” when I was 13. A friend passed it on to me, and I believe it was the first adult novel I ever read. It enthralled me with its lyrical descriptions of Southern life and the friendship of Scout, Jem and Dill.

Wasn’t there a Boo Radley in everyone’s neighborhood? And, of course, I loved Atticus, the noble father who bravely stood up to racial injustice, in 1930s Alabama, where such behavior could be extremely dangerous.

It immediately became my favorite book ever, a mantle it retains to this day, after many rereadings.

It’s really too bad we’ve had to learn that Harper Lee originally painted Atticus as a racist, but it’s not the end of my love affair.

As a writer, I know that my words don’t stand like immutable stone once I send them out into the world. Readers will interpret my work as they will. Sometimes they misunderstand what I’m saying, sometimes they want to deny my right to say it. And once in a while, they see meanings I didn’t intend, but which make perfect sense.

I do the same things as a reader. So it’s important to remember that whatever we, the readers, have taken from “Mockingbird” over all these years is really our own construction. As a child growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I had a strong sense of moral purpose. I had witnessed three assassinations before I read “Mockingbird,” so I understood the price people might pay for taking a stand and speaking their minds. This was one reason I so admired the book.

Then came “Go Set a Watchman.”

No one, except for the publishers and Lee’s lawyer, knows exactly how “Watchman” came to be released. The story I have pieced together from media accounts is disturbing. Lee famously retreated to Alabama after the fame “Mockingbird” brought her. She secluded herself and never wrote another book.

Then, several months after Lee’s sister (and protector) died, her lawyer “finds” an unpublished manuscript and promptly sets about getting it published. Lee is quoted as saying she’s thrilled at this turn of events, but she’s 89 years old and living in an assisted-living facility. Does she even know the book is out there? Does she remember writing it?

I tried not to acquire too much information about “Watchman” before I read it because I wanted to approach it with an open mind. That was, after all, how I read “Mockingbird,” with just a childhood friend’s advice that “this is a good book.” Of course, with the publication of “Watchman” I couldn’t possibly avoid hearing that “Atticus is a racist.”

Reading it was an interesting experience. It’s not a very good book, and that’s why it wasn’t published the first time around. But, once again as a writer, I couldn’t help but try to figure out how the second book had been wrangled from the first.

All the while, I had to keep reminding myself that Lee wrote “Watchman” first, and rewrote it into “Mockingbird.”

One way of looking at it is that Lee originally wanted to write about a young woman who leaves Alabama in the 1950s and finds that her perceptions of race relations (among other matters) have changed. Her views have placed her at odds with the people and town she loves. That would have made for a good novel, but only if it included more of the back story that we know only from “Mockingbird.” Secure in having read “Mockingbird” first, we know how intense that back story is. Was there an editor who saw that potential in “Watchman” and urged Lee to focus on it, which gave us “Mockingbird”? If so, it was a brilliant deduction.

The other reason I always have loved “Mockingbird” is Scout’s depiction of her childhood, which affected me on a deep level. I don’t know precisely why, but I wanted to be a character in the book.

Still, then, as now, I realized “Mockingbird” was fiction, just like the manuscript that preceded it. As large as the characters in Lee’s masterpiece loom over our culture, they are not real.

Lee originally wrote Atticus as a man who felt he needed to “go along to get along.” Then she rewrote him as a man who was determined to do what was right.

Readers love that rewritten man. Some name their sons after him. It’s scary to think we have lost him, but we haven’t. He’s still there, in the pages of my favorite book.

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected]


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