When I was a little girl, I developed a love of reading. I was the lone reader in my family, and I eagerly feasted upon any title that came my way. From magazines to romance novels; if my hands cold open the binding, my brain craved the opportunity. I was reading high school required reading in elementary school, thanks to my older sister. Of all of the books I devoured in my life, none has impacted me like To Kill a Mockingbird did.
I first read the book as a child, in the 6th grade. My sister was required to read To Kill a Mockingbird as a 10th-grade student. I was intrigued by the title as well as the artwork on the paperback novel my sister tossed on the counter with disinterest. I welcomed the challenge of the vocabulary.
When I was a high school student, I frequently would be given the option to pass a title or visit the school library to select one at my reading level. I had read nearly every title we were required to read in the state of Ohio before entering high school. When this title came about, I opted to reread it and complete the project assigned in lieu of the test.
The book touched my heart, it was like poetry for my soul. I liked the book so much I told my parents I lost it so they would pay the damaged/lost fee and I could add it to my collection. I re-read it many times over the years. I encouraged my friends to read the book. I went to book club meetings and dominated the conversations on the title. I joked I may eventually teach a college course on To Kill a Mockingbird.
From those first readings as a 12-year-old child, there was one thing I wanted. I wanted more of To Kill a Mockingbird. Hypothetical conversations like Jeanie in a Bottle: What are your 3 wishes? I wanted more of that book. Throw a coin in a well and make a wish... I want more of that book. Wildest dreams? More of the book!!!
Imagine my bewilderment, my excitement, my dizzying reaction to hearing there was, in fact, more to be had. As a 35-year-old woman, my, however nerdy they may be, Wildest Dreams were coming true. For my birthday that year, a hardback copy of Go Set a Watchman was presented to me. Here, Your Dreams Have Come True. Tread Cautiously.
With my dreams and wishes granted, my hands began to sweat. I wasn’t ready to face the pages of the book. I tucked it on a shelf, resisted peer pressure and pretended nothing had happened. I am skeptical of my dreams coming true. The old adage, Be careful what you wish for flashed before my eyes like a neon sign.
Trying to explain that I was not ready to have my love of Atticus squashed was difficult. How do you explain to someone that Atticus Finch has been your fictional husband for 23 years and you just can’t risk it without sounding like a crazy woman? That is how I felt. It wasn’t until I began to read Go Set a Watchman did I realize maybe Atticus was like my fictional husband when I was filled with hopes and dreams of being a respectable adult, but really, it was Jem Finch that stole my heart as a little girl. To find that Scout had grown up presented new opportunities. I was excited to have a picture painted in my mind of all of the characters I love so dearly again.
My picture of Jem was painted; it crushes me still. That cute little southern boy that enacted epic tales with his sister and Dill, that boy that had his arm badly broken at the elbow when he was nearly 13; that boy that inspired my love of southern accents grows into a man to fall dead on a sidewalk.
Immediately I was faced with a reality I am still not ready for. I was to go through the rest of my days, living a life with no Jem Finch.
I get it, I really do. Jem Finch isn’t a real person in my life. I don’t need a fictional husband as an adult. I have an awesome real-life spouse.
The book that tells the story of Jem and Scout as children had taken place before I was even a thought in the mind of a living person. By the time I had my heart stolen by both Jem and Atticus, had they been real people, they would have both been elderly men. But, in the imagination of a child and again in the imagination of a woman, both were real people that shaped so many parts of my life. From what I named my children to my views on racial equality, before I even knew what that truly was. I looked for qualities that both of these characters possessed when I chose my own honorable, intelligent husband that oozes boyish charm.
I have to admit, I didn’t finish Go Set a Watchman. I closed the book with a few pages to go. I tucked it back onto the shelf with a heavy heart. I couldn’t have the closure of finishing it. I felt the reality of adulthood slap me in my face. Sometimes your dreams do come true and you discover that you have had your heart stomped on in the process.
As I try to come to terms with living a life where there is No Jem Finch, I realize, maybe the contents of the book that made me feel like my heart had been broken by my heroine wasn’t important. What was important is that someone knew enough to save her first attempts at an epic story. What is important is that Go Set a Watchman reminded me of how much I love To Kill a Mockingbird, and why I have historically loved this book.
I am eventually going to read Go Set a Watchman in its entirety. I initially planned to wait until my heart was ready to face the absence of Jem Finch in print and imagination. Now I know that when the time is right, and I am ready to say goodbye to Jem, that I will thank Harper Lee, where ever she may be, for opening up a new world to me where there will always be a southern boy that is fascinated by football magazines and that loses his pants on a fence on a summer’s night; there will always be a boy that takes me back to the days when I was a carefree student, devouring literature and indulging my imagination for discovering the world. In that world of my imagination, there will always be a girl that reminds me a little of myself as a child. There will always be a man that will fight a losing battle for his children. All I need to do is open the pages of a book and I will be transported back to these characters I love so dearly.