Sweet Home Alabama

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

LeeThough the new book is, to be blunt, a string of clichés, some of them are clichés only because, in the half century since Lee’s generation introduced them, they’ve become clichés; taken on their own terms, they remain quite touching and beautiful. The evocation of Maycomb, with which the new book begins, and which recurs throughout its pages, is often magically alive. There is a little set piece about the arrival of a train at a flag stop that makes one feel nostalgic for one’s Southern childhood even if one never had a Southern childhood:

The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful. . . . The train clacketed through pine forests and honked derisively at a gaily-painted bell funneled museum piece sidetracked in a clearing. It bore the sign of a lumber concern, and the Crescent Limited could have swallowed it whole with room to spare. Greenville, Evergreen, Maycomb Junction.

She had told the conductor not to forget to let her off, and because the conductor was an elderly man, she anticipated his joke. . . . Trains changed; conductors never did. Being funny at flag stops with young ladies was a mark of the profession, and Atticus, who could predict the actions of every conductor from New Orleans to Cincinnati, would be awaiting accordingly not six steps away from her point of debarkation.

The tone is right and lovely, and is just as right and lovely in other pastoral pieces, in the later pages (though almost exclusively flashbacks), about games played with the heroine’s brother, Jem, and the Truman Capote character, Dill. The other, less potent clichés are either the stage-dramatic clichés of the fifties—the kind of dramaturgy you find in an Elia Kazan movie, with neat “reveals” and passionate scenes in which people driven to a climax of anger suddenly tell one another long-buried secrets—or, more drearily, the clichéd rationales that liberal Southerners used for years to justify a social order that they knew to be unjust.

More here.