Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Other Peoples' Books: Harper Lee and the BSC

Photo by Ken Slade

If you don't already know, the BSC stands for The Babysitters Club. And, of course, Harper Lee is the renown author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

One of the things that really appeals to me about writing is the potential to affect others' lives. Even if it is just to entertain them for one afternoon. Even if your book gets published and immediately fades into obscurity, for all you know it was exactly what one of its few readers needed right when he or she read it. That's something I love about books.

Two things inspired me to write this post this week:
  1. This article on how the BSC helped a girl diagnosed with Type I diabetes back in the '90s.
  2. I just read Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman.

BSC Benevolence

Photo by Yasmeen

I'll deal with the easiest first. That's why I set it at point 1. I read some of the BSC books when I was a kid, and until I read this article it never occurred to me that Ann M. Martin, or possibly her ghostwriters or ghosteditor or whoever was in charge of making decisions about that series, purposely set up a somewhat diverse crowd of girls. This article specifically focused on how one of the main characters had diabetes but was still probably the coolest girl in the group and how that made the article's author feel far less alone when she was diagnosed with diabetes.

Talk about an aspect of The Babysitters Club that I never recognized before. What an awesome way a kids' book series affected this girl's life!

Harper Lee Controversy

Image from Kristen

Now for the less easy point. I'm not exactly sure what I think, so I'll just lay out the story and end with a few thoughts.

Harper Lee is still alive for those who are curious (I wasn't sure until I googled it), but she's not in good health. She's heavily dependent on her caretakers to make decisions for her, and her career caretaker decided it was time to publish a book Harper Lee wrote before writing To Kill A Mockingbird (TKAMB).

That first book, Go Set a Watchman (GSAW), is the chronological sequel to TKAMB, even though Lee wrote GSAW earlier. Apparently, Lee wanted to write a "race novel" but GSAW wasn't quite good enough. She worked hard and long and eventually finished writing the very polished TKAMB.

This NY Times opinion piece lambasts Rupert Murdoch-owned Harper Collins and Lee's protector, Tonja Carter, who brought the novel to Harper Collins. The article's author says (and gives some pretty decent evidence that) Lee never wanted GSAW to be published. She wanted her legacy to stand firm on the polished and moving TKAMB. Plus there's the fact that Lee had GSAW in her possession ever since the '50s but never published it herself. Pretty compelling argument.

That puts a very negative spin on the fact GSAW was published now that Lee's incapacitated.

However, it's been published - whether or not it should have been published in the first place is academic. That doesn't mean that I agree it should have been done. But it happened.

And, to put a different spin on it, some authors' private papers have been published after their deaths. Those papers give incredible insights into their works and are invaluable to scholars. And sometimes they're just incredibly interesting. But authors when they were alive wouldn't necessarily have wanted to share their private papers that are published and celebrated after their deaths.

Mockingbird by Andy Morffew

So here is my opinion and thoughts on GSAW:
  • It is an incredibly interesting companion piece to TKAMB.
  • It is not as moving as TKAMB and wouldn't have as much meaning if we weren't already captivated by the TKAMB characters.
  • It goes back to a really interesting period in time: the race relations in the 1950s South.
  • It is valuable for people today to remember that just 60 years ago these attitudes were a real thing in our country.
  • SIXTY YEARS! That is not too long ago. (Sorry, I felt the point was worth reiterating).
  • The book is a product of its time, and that in itself is interesting. The views Lee expresses even from the very liberal and "color blind" Scout are, well, still a little racist.
  • I found it interesting that even though Lee is writing a book about race relations, there are pretty much no black main characters. There's Calpurnia, but she only shows up in the novel's present day in about a quarter of one chapter. That's crazy and a bit telling.
  • Scout's character goes through an interesting evolution.
  • The book is worth a read. (Sorry, Harper Lee). It's a captivating, beautiful book that's easy to read. But I would only read it AFTER reading to Kill A Mocking Bird.
I feel a little like I'm slapping Harper Lee in the face when I say this, but I think this book is a great companion piece to TKAMB. It's not as moving or well-written. But it is good. I enjoyed it, it made me think, and I was glad I got to read it.

It's good to remember that this was our world a mere 60 years ago. Brown vs. Board of Education only started to dismantle segregation in the South in 1954. Interracial marriages were only legalized in some (Southern) states in 1967. Then there was the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

That's insane to me. And I think this book helps put all of that back in the spotlight.

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