Back at the beginning of August, I was able to secure a library copy of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Our library only allows us to keep new books out for 2 weeks, so I had to really dig in and fast so I could turn it back in on time.
Many are calling it the “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird, and rightly so. The premise of the story is what life is like in Maycomb, Alabama (a fictional town, by the way) when Jean Louise (aka Scout) Finch comes back to town after being away in the big city for a while (NYC being the big city). However, I couldn’t help but think about this book as a prequel. Harper Lee wrote it before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and it was initially rejected by her editors and thus To Kill a Mockingbird was born. It really doesn’t matter how you think about Go Set a Watchman as long as you realize it’s all one big story about the life of Jean Louise Finch.
This post is not going to delve into whether or not this book should’ve been published because that is a whole other debate for another day, and I don’t know Ms. Lee personally so it wouldn’t be fair for me to comment on her mental state. In any case, the book has been printed for all to read, and I think I have finally formed an opinion about it.
Go Set a Watchman is a challenge. It is a challenge to read (it doesn’t flow nearly as well as To Kill a Mockingbird); it is a challenge to think about (with all the racial tensions our country is currently facing, this book is extremely appropriate for the topic); it is a challenge for writers to grapple with.
I wouldn’t claim to be a professional writer (I’ve not been paid as a journalist nor have I written a novel), but I do know a little bit about word flow and writing from the basic English courses I took in high school and college. Go Set a Watchman is a great learning tool for anyone who strives to write professionally. I wouldn’t say it’s full of “mistakes,” but I believe very strongly in proofreading and rewording and especially in having someone else read your work. That’s not to say her editors didn’t do those things, but I do wonder how deeply they delved into her story. I love Charles Dicken’s classic novels, but oh man is he a Wordy McWordison. Do we really need 10 sentences on the texture and consistency of Oliver Twist’s gruel? No, no we don’t. Harper Lee tends to suffer from the same problem in this novel. I guess it’s helpful to some to have a “southern women’s gathering” explained to them in detail, but since I’m from the south and am very familiar with what all that means, I didn’t need two pages devoted to that description. It’s little things like that throughout the novel that could’ve been cleaned up for me, personally.
I do appreciate this book for it’s revelations on how we idolize or uphold our elders in such a way that when we become adults ourselves that shining pedestal we’ve put them on tends to crack and fade, and that can really cause and identity crisis for us. Without giving too much away, Scout wrestles with her father’s decisions in a town meeting, and has to come to terms with who she is and who is he is (and that it is ok that he is not who she thought he was). I don’t believe this novel turned Atticus into a “racist.” A lot of readers were disappointed in Ms. Lee’s treatment of this character, who seemed to be such a shining example of non-racist behavior in To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think Atticus didn’t change at all. He was always a character devoted to truth and justice, and sometimes his justice didn’t look like anyone else’s justice (or Scout’s justice for that matter). The truth of a person is sometimes hard to grasp as a child, and when it is discovered as an adult, it can be a hard pill to swallow.
I believe that, while this novel didn’t “wrap things up in a neat bow,” it also did not end in despair. If you were on the fence about reading this novel, I would highly suggest you hop on over to the other side and give it a try. At the very least, it will get you thinking about what it means to grow and change, but still respect and love those who may not be as you once thought they were.
Have you read Go Set a Watchman yet? What did you think about it?