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‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ sequel reveals dark side of Atticus Finch

July 11, 2015 at 5:33 PM EDT
After months of anticipation, Harper Lee’s second novel, “Go Set A Watchman” will be released on Tuesday. The book takes place 20 years after the events of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” But early reviews reveal that the story takes an unexpected turn. Sam Sacks, who reviewed the novel for the Wall Street Journal, joins Hari Sreenivasan with more details.

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Joining us now to discuss “Go Set a Watchman” is Sam Sacks, who reviewed it for the fiction chronicle of the “Weekend Journal.”

So, I’m thinking Gregory Peck in my head. But it’s Atticus Finch, the character. And in this book, you say it’s distressing what’s happened to him.

SAM SACKS, WEEKEND JOURNAL: Yes. Atticus Finch is revealed to be a segregationist, someone who joins an organization to resist the integration movement that happened after Brown versus Board of Education.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And this was a book that Harper Lee wrote before “To Kill a Mockingbird”, so it’s not sequentially a sequel.

SAM SACKS: Exactly. She wrote it as a draft. It was the first thing she submitted to her editor. Her editor said, well, why don’t you do it when Scout is a child instead of a 26 year old?

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, really the editor should get credit for how significant “To Kill a Mockingbird” became, right? I mean, that’s a book we all pick up in elementary or middle school. It’s one of the most kind of important pieces of literature in America that gives — at least me as an immigrant, an insight to what this country was about at some point, right?

So, how are readers likely to receive what they think of as real reshaping of one of the biggest characters in American literature?

SAM SACKS: Well, it’s going to be really interesting. A lot of people are going to be extremely shocked and upset first of all because of their idea of Atticus Finch, who really is a symbol, he’s an icon, he’s moral conscience of the United States. Well, that’s all been tarnished now. So, what do you with that, you have a much more complex and complicated image of this character now, much more dimensional.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And it’s not just I guess the reader. Even in the book, you point out that there’s a quote in there from Scout, the older Scout, “I’ll never believe a word you say to me again, I despise you and everything you stand for.”

SAM SACKS: Yes, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because Scout has the exact same reaction to the discovery she makes about her father that the reader is going to have. She’s just as letdown, she’s just as disappointed. And the book is about, well, can she empathize with him anyway?

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, is there the possibility for this book to become as significant or does this change whether middle schools hand out “To Kill a Mockingbird”?

SAM SACKS: It’s a very good question. It absolutely complicates “To Kill a Mockingbird”. You now have to teach that book in a very different way. You can’t pretend like this book doesn’t exist. So, now, you have to say, OK, this is one picture of Atticus Finch, but there’s another picture of him too.

It gives us a much more complicated picture of the South during that age, and of race relations in the U.S. It’s less aspirational, it’s less idealistic and it’s less flattering — but maybe it’s more interesting in the long run.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And the fact that this is 50 years later from the same author — I mean, I don’t know of times — if that’s happened before.

SAM SACKS: No, I can’t think of any precedent for it. There have been other books that have had sequels, like “Gone With the Wind” had sequels, but they were written by different authors, so they really only exist in a provisional way. It’s not the same thing at all.

You can’t discount this book’s existence now. It lives with “To Kill a Mockingbird”, side by side with it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And this is being released at the time when a conversation about race in America has resurfaced in several ways in the past six months.

SAM SACKS: It’s fascinating. It really shows you that race is such a central issue in the United States. The issue of the Confederate flag — people are going to be thinking of that as they read this book and it’s resurfaced again.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, any talk about why she waited so long?

SAM SACKS: Well, it was a draft. We don’t really know. We don’t have any access to her or her thoughts. It was her, the executor of her estate who has decided to it, her lawyer in essence, says that she found this manuscript and put it out to the world. But we don’t really know the history of it or what she thinks.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Sam Sacks, who reviewed “Go Set a Watchman” for the fiction chronicle of the “Weekend Journal” — thanks so much for joining us.

SAM SACKS: Thank you.