It’s the 1950s, and Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch is visiting home from New York. It’s been a few years since she was last in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama–not since the death of her brother, Jem. As she reacquaints herself with the rural life she knew so well as a child, she finds the pace and attitudes of home to be in stark contrast to that of the big city. But the joy of being reunited with her father, Atticus, and of rekindling old friendships is marred by dark truths she uncovers as Maycomb struggles to come to terms with the burgeoning civil rights movement.
GO SET A WATCHMAN is of interest if only for giving us a snapshot of the rural South in the 1950s. The fact that people of high moral standard were able to justify racist attitudes is something hard for us to comprehend in the 21st century, and I appreciate the insight this book gives into that mindset. Lee’s writing in this story is good, though not exceptional. However, my main criticism of the book is that it’s very thin on story. We travel with Jean Louise as she makes her discoveries, and aside from a few incidents, the things she discovers about people she thought she knew are really the only twists in the story. I give it four stars on the strength of the writing, but it’s only barely four stars. There is some mild profanity for which I’d rate it PG-13.
SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read the book and don’t want any spoilers, stop reading now!
The above review took the book on its own merit, which I think is only fair. Published more than 50 years after Harper Lee’s celebrated debut, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the temptation is to consider GO SET A WATCHMAN in comparison to TKaM. However, I wanted to evaluate the book on its own first. Now let’s consider it in light of the bigger picture.
Most already know the story behind the story, that WATCHMAN was the novel Lee originally wrote but set aside to write MOCKINGBIRD. The manuscript of WATCHMAN was recently re-discovered and considered worthy of publication as, perhaps, the world’s most long-awaited sequel. That is, of course, the version of events the publisher would like us to believe, and in all candor, there’s not any solid evidence to contradict that story. However, it has been said that Lee did not give consent to the publication of WATCHMAN, and it was only after her estate changed hands in recent years that making this book available was even considered. Lee is an elderly woman, dependent on others for her care, so there is question as to how much say she could have had in the publication of the novel. I will say this, if this is indeed the first draft of TKaM, I’m impressed. My first drafts are not this good, and I’ve read a lot of final published books a whole lot worse. That also factored in my four-star rating.
However, if it’s true that Lee did not want this book published, I say it should never have been released and marketed the way it was. Perhaps a more appropriate release would have been as a historical document published posthumously. But it really isn’t fair to set it alongside TKaM as if it’s a sequel. Before writing this review, I re-read TKaM to be sure I’m not being overly harsh. I’m not. TKaM is a vastly superior work. There’s real drama, tension, cliff-hangers, great dialog, voice, and a truly absorbing story. In the past I’ve referred to TKaM as possibly the best novel I’ve ever read. After a second reading, I stand by that assessment. GSaW is a shadow of the work that it produced.
Reading the two books side-by-side, it’s easier to discern some of the editorial choices made. The most obvious is the switch from third person to first person. Scout’s voice is part of what makes TKaM so endearing, and that’s something veiled by GSaW’s close third-person perspective. We also see in GSaW stories from Scout’s past that are woven into the narrative of TKaM. For example, early in GSaW, Lee gives us a potted history of Maycomb County. This is transformed into the narrative behind Mrs. Merriweather’s Halloween pageant celebrating Maycomb, as related to us by Scout near the end of TKaM. And some of the best parts of GSaW are the flashbacks to the 1930s. It’s clear now why the flashbacks became the novel; the characters are far more interesting as children, and the child’s point of view is far more engaging for this story. Whoever told Lee to focus the story in the 1930s (it has been suggested this was Lee’s friend, Truman Capote) did American literature a great service.
Finally, I want to address the big story of GSaW: the revelation that “Atticus Finch was a racist.” This makes for a shocking headline, but the truth is a bit more nuanced than that. Does the Atticus Finch in GSaW hold to a view of non-whites that is unacceptable? Certainly. But did he hold the same views as many of his contemporaries? Not quite. In GSaW, Atticus tries to walk a line between upholding segregation, but treating black people as people, with the same right to legal representation, and a fair trial. Equal but separate, which (as Scout rightly points out) isn’t really equality. However, there’s no hate or malice in Atticus’s view. It certainly seems the case that Atticus’s views became a lot more sympathetic in TKaM, especially the way he’s willing to push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable in terms of race relations and race integration (notice his relaxed attitude toward Scout and Jem going to Calpurnia’s church, for example). But the story in GSaW is more about Scout learning to stand up for her own opinions even if they disagree with her father’s. This, more than Atticus’s racism, appears to be what’s important to that novel.
Is GO SET A WATCHMAN a necessary follow-up to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? No, not by a long shot. In fact, I don’t see what purpose its publication serves other than to make money for the publisher. Lee originally set aside GSaW to write TKaM, which tells me she considered TKaM the book she intended to write. So, while GSaW is not a bad book in itself, I certainly wouldn’t consider it necessary reading. In fact, if you’ve never read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, buy a copy of that instead.
That’s what I think. What are your thoughts about GO SET A WATCHMAN?