I just finished Harper Lee’s GO SET A WATCHMAN

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I admit I was biased from the beginning because I wondered why an unrelated story would be published with the same characters as those in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I’d heard Harper Lee wrote GO SET A WATCHMAN first, but it still seemed strange. Plus, I’d heard that Atticus Finch was depicted in an unflattering way and was not the man of complete integrity that he is in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. That seemed almost blasphemous! Atticus Finch is one of my all-time favorite characters in all of literature— I love that man. But as I got further into GO SET A WATCHMAN, I settled down and was able to separate the characters in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD from the characters in GO SET A WATCHMAN. I began to recognize that this really was a different story, one with a different theme—one with some merit and power of its own, but most important, a forerunner to the acclaimed book I love.

I believe Harper Lee’s talent had to be evident to the publishing company when she first sent in this manuscript years ago, and I’m guessing that is why they suggested she try to rework it. I understand it was an editor who suggested she use a younger version of Scout to narrate the story. If this is true, then that astute editor deserves at least a little of the credit for the classic that followed.

Here are a couple of other suggestions I’m thinking this editor or other editors might have made after reading GO SET A WATCHMAN.

Show more and tell less. GO SET A WATCHMAN includes long discussions or arguments about race relations. In my opinion, these discussions are heavy-handed and preachy. In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD there is dialogue as well, but this time Harper Lee allowed the story itself to do most of the talking.

Let the scenes work as building blocks to develop the plot. I did not get the feeling that some of the scenes in GO SET A WATCHMAN were leading us anywhere. In fact, I kept wondering where on earth we were heading. That’s not to say they were boring. Several made me laugh out loud, and others were thought-provoking and even powerful, but the scenes, until the end at least, did not always seem necessary. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, on the other hand, is a much more cohesive book. The scenes build and support each other, leading us step by step to the powerful climax and denouement.

It could be that Harper Lee worked these things out on her own as TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD’s plot began to unfold for her. It could be that once she had her idea, the story began to tell itself, and the characters took over, helping her develop the story. This happens sometimes. However it happened, it worked.

Am I glad I read GO SET A WATCHMAN? As I mentioned above, it had some merit and good parts. It was thought-provoking. Mostly though, it was interesting and inspiring to see the huge difference between this first effort and Harper Lee’s subsequent effort. It confirms once again that what we view as rejections or failures in our lives really can become the proverbial stepping stones that lead us to greater success and excellence.

Sounds like VaLois, right?

mou0042461-1_20150801I just realized that one of my favorite fictional characters in one of my favorite books might as well be twins with our neighbor who just passed away. If you knew VaLois, see if you agree:

Lucinda Matlock

(from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters)

I went to the dances at Chandlerville,

And played snap-out at Winchester.

One time we changed partners,

Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,

And then I found Davis.

We were married and lived together for seventy years,

Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,

Eight of whom we lost

Ere I had reached the age of sixty.

I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,

I made the garden, and for holiday

Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,

And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,

And many a flower and medicinal weed—

Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.

At ninety-six, I had lived enough, that is all.

And passed to a sweet repose.

What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,

Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?

Degenerate sons and daughters,

Life is too strong for you—

It takes life to love Life.

Recognize that gusto? Whenever we’d go visit VaLois, my husband and I would come away in awe. “Now that lady has a life,” we’d say. Like Lucinda Matlock, VaLois lived her life fully: she cooked; she sewed; she cleaned. She too had her dancing days and she sang. She sang when and what she wanted to sing and didn’t care what people thought. And she went places.

Up until a few months ago, she’d get in her car and go where she needed  or wanted to go—the hairdressers, her beloved TOPS and to weddings and funerals. Sometimes she’d drive for many miles to visit friends and relatives.

Oh, she wasn’t perfect. She was opinionated and strong-willed probably to a fault. “We go the first Monday of the month in the morning first thing,” she let me know when I was assigned to visit teach with her, a church assignment. That’s how it was. So that’s what we did.  But it ended up that I liked that set up. It simplified things. There were no questions and no endless phone calls. Her belief and testimony simplified her life and the lives of others as well. You could count on it. You could count on her to tell you what she believed and thought was right straight out and without apology.

I can’t remember how many grandchildren and great grandchildren VaLois had, but her life wasn’t easy. Like Lucinda Matlock, some of VaLois’s family members left this life before her. Unlike Lucinda, VaLois had to go on solo without her husband for a few years, but again she kept living with energy and strength. And maybe she didn’t make it to ninety-six, but I can just hear her say what Lucinda Matlock said,  “It takes life to love life.” And VaLois did. You could tell she did. VaLois, I wish you “a sweet repose.”

Story Trek is my kind of TV

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Yesterday morning I happened to catch a rerun of The Story Trek on BYU television. So good. It reminded me of my favorite book, Spoon River Anthology, in which individuals tell their life stories in just a few lines. But these people are real and alive.

The episode I watched featured a recovering addict who’s happy to be productive again; a river guide, who, like “The Fiddler” in Spoon River Anthology, spends his life doing what he loves; a man who had a troubled youth and thought he never wanted to return to his hometown, but is there now taking care of his mother who always loved him unconditionally; and my favorite, a Moab couple who fell in love because they both liked to dance and who have been “dancing” through life ever since. They had to be extremely creative in order to stay in Moab, the town they loved, building their home from old pieces of movie sets, and coming up with ways to make money by starting businesses such as renting RVs. When the host asked if they were millionaires now, they laughed and seemed to think that was funny. “We’ve talked about how happy we’d be if we won the lottery,” they said. “But then we realized we’re really happy right now. We’ve always been happy.”

I guess I’m just a sucker for life stories, and The Story Trek contains these kinds of gold nuggets of inspiration. I’m going to have to watch this program much more often.