NOVEL: Go Set a Watchman
AUTHOR: Harper Lee
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2015
In anticipation of the new/old Harper Lee novel, I dug up my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for a revisit. Through various moves, I’ve held on to this paperback, an old favorite. It was printed in 1982, so I probably paid for it with my allowance, as at age 12 I was probably still a little young to be earning babysitting money. I know my eighth grade English class covered it (and I remember the teacher making much of the bird imagery throughout) but this is one I discovered before it was taught to me, and I liked it enough to spend $3.50. Anyway, it was good to once more admire Harper Lee’s beautiful prose, her evocation of small town life in the 1930s, the depth of her characters (even the minor ones), and her brilliant narration, the voice of an intelligent and perceptive child and of an adult looking back at that childhood. It’s hard to separate the book from the movie in my memory, especially Gregory Peck’s brilliant portrayal of Atticus Finch defending the innocent Tom Robinson, but the novel isn’t mainly a courtroom drama…it covers several years of Scout’s childhood experiences, and is more of a coming of age story than a civil rights story.
Go Set a Watchman is reportedly a draft that eventually morphed into the classic so many know and love. This one is a civil rights novel. It’s focused on a short visit Scout makes back to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama (she’s now an adult living in New York City in the 1950s), and her disillusionment upon discovering that her father is opposed to the NAACP.
Now, perhaps this novel contains some messages for our time: good men can be on the wrong side of history; people are often morally complex; having abiding respect for the rule of law is, sadly, not inconsistent with racist beliefs; idolatry inevitably leads to disappointment.
One passage, the beginning of chapter 4, describing the history of Maycomb and its families, is essentially duplicative of one in To Kill a Mockingbird, but otherwise it’s an entirely separate story with some of the same characters (and the main events of Mockingbird only touched upon briefly in flashbacks). Jem is dead. Dill is living in Europe.
Unfortunately, it’s just not very well done. Scout (now known as Jean Louise) is older here, but not wiser. She comes across as idealistic but rather emotionally unstable, railing and shouting at her family members, changing her mind repeatedly about whether or not to marry Harry (a childhood friend who didn’t appear in Mockingbird), and briefly suicidal when she discovers Atticus’ racist beliefs. There are some (rather unnecessary) flashbacks to her adolescence covering her panic at her first menstrual period, her fear of pregnancy after being kissed by a boy, and a school dance during which her breast paddings went awry.
What’s really amazing is how this mess was transformed into a modern classic. Her editor (Tay Hohoff) was absolutely brilliant to have seen its potential, and to have worked with the author to create a book for the ages.
If you’d prefer your beloved characters from a classic novel as they were, don’t consider this one a sequel (it doesn’t appear to have been written as one in any event). There’s even an out for you: Tom Robinson’s trial resulted in an acquittal in Go Set a Watchman, which, I’d like to think, conclusively demonstrates that it is set in a different fictional universe. No need to reconcile it: just consider this one a failed reboot, like a new comic book or television series.
That leaves us free to imagine our own future for Scout…we can hope she finds happiness in Maycomb, or New York. That she goes to law school, and, with her father’s fond approval, aligns herself with the NAACP. That the Klan doesn’t come to Maycomb and that the schools are integrated without violence. Maybe she could do some work for the National Organization for Women, too, and help make sure that people like herself are getting equal pay for equal work. By now she’d be pretty elderly, but I’d like to think that in 2015 she’d be pleased that gay marriage is legal in all fifty states…after all, Dill was based on Harper Lee’s childhood friend in real life, Truman Capote.
RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best):
Go Set a Watchman: 1 Whistle
To Kill a Mockingbird: 5 Whistles
HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon
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Lead-In Image Courtesy of Harper Collins
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org