Nothing new needs to be said about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. From the time it was published in 1960, it has been hailed a masterpiece. It has always been my favorite book of all time, and as a former English teacher, it was also my favorite book to teach.
When news broke that a “lost” Lee manuscript had been found, the publishing world was abuzz like it hadn’t been in years. Folks like me who absolutely love TKAM have always wanted another Lee novel, but until then we figured we’d either never get another or Lee had written more but decided not to publish until her death. So when I heard that Go Set a Watchman was set to be released, I was excited.
Now that the book has been published and lots of people have had time to read it, it has received many negative reviews. I have consciously never read a review of the book because of the fear it would be tainted for me. Oh, I’d heard about Atticus, all right, but that was not enough to spoil it.
After reading the book, I decided to let it percolate for a while before I wrote my review. So here’s what I think:
The first chapter had me hooked. Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is on her way to Maycomb, Alabama, for her yearly visit from New York. We ride with Scout as she travels through Alabama to her hometown. We learn a little about the history of Maycomb just like in the first chapter of TKAM. It was like an old familiar friend I hadn’t seen a long time telling me how his life had gone since we last spoke. Although Scout isn’t telling the story, the narrative voice is definitely Lee’s. The cadence of the sentences is definitely Lee’s. The way the narrator describes Maycomb is definitely Lee’s.
It must be noted here that Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel in the sense that it was designed to be so, even though the setting is 1950s Alabama, approximately 20 years after TKAM. The publisher explained that it is actually a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. While reading Watchman, however, it was easy to forget that it was not a sequel. We readers want to find out what happened to characters that we came to consider family members and dear friends.
This is probably why it was a shock to the system that we find out Jem has died of the same affliction that killed his mother at a young age. Thankfully, Scout never lets us forget about Jem with her many references to him; at the same time, a sense of sadness permeates the narrative by our knowing how full of life and energy he was in TKAM but was robbed of his adulthood. Good old Dill is also mentioned but never seen except in flashbacks.
Henry “Hank” Clinton is a character absent from TKAM. He is “her lifelong friend, her brother’s comrade, and if he kept on kissing her like that, her husband.” Being introduced to Henry was jarring to me because he had never been mentioned in TKAM. Henry believes that Scout will eventually move back to Maycomb and become his wife. Scout isn’t so sure. She cannot quite picture that scenario after having lived in New York City.
We see Atticus in his 70s. Old age has finally caught up to him, and he needs assistance from Henry and his sister Alexandra, yet still practicing law, his mind is as sharp as ever. But it is Atticus, the moral force in TKAM, who surprises readers the most. Scout comes to find out that something about him and his beliefs that shocks her to the core and forms the basis for the latter part of the novel. She forces a showdown between Atticus and herself regarding his beliefs. Readers who feel particularly let down by Go Set a Watchman cannot reconcile this version of Atticus with their memories.
The showdown is foreshadowed about halfway through the novel as she reflect on what she had believed about her father: “She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, ‘What would Atticus do’ passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.”
Seeing one’s parents as a people who have no flaws and are on the proverbial pedestal versus seeing their parents as human beings with real flaws is the true core of Go Set a Watchman. Atticus Finch is the best father in the world to not only Scout, but also by readers and viewers of TKAM. Seeing her father in any other light makes her physically ill. Seeing Atticus in any other lights disappoints and devastates readers who loved the original novel. Without spoiling the ending, Scout learns a very important lesson about life that enables her to move on in her own life.
This does not make Go Set a Watchman a bad novel. The novel does have plenty of faults. One of the primary faults is that the novel is too episodic. Flashbacks may be expected in a novel, but the flashbacks here are extended to the extent that the point is soon lost on why the flashback exists. I did enjoy the story of Scout’s thinking that she was pregnant, but was it necessary? To Kill a Mockingbird is also an episodic novel, but the difference is that those episodes were not flashbacks and led to very important lessons for the Finches and Dill, all of which were tied thematically together. If readers understand that Watchman is the work of an inexperienced and young writer, and if they understand that this is supposed to be a draft, then that can be overlooked.
While I will not give Go Set a Watchman five stars, I will give it two and a half. Expectations were so high for this book that it would have taken a perfect effort to attain those expectations. I see this novel for what it is: an early effort at something that would become a masterpiece. What I find amazing is how much this effort changed into To Kill a Mockingbird. How much editing and revamping had to be done is awe-inspiring. It makes aspiring authors see what must be done to become an accomplished writer.