Aside from my love of fantasy novels and scifi literature, my favorite book of fiction is To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve read it several times. Listened to its audiobook several times. And every time I learn to love its unequivocal brilliance and intricacy more and more, as well as finding new passages and themes to unravel. It is, in my opinion, the strongest example of the Great American Novel. It’s a book I hold very dear, and whose characters I regard more highly than some of my associates. I’ve long resigned myself to the notion that Harper Lee never followed up the novel with a sequel, and I’ve accepted that the characters probably just did more of the same after the events of Arthur Radley’s rescue of Scout and Jem; learning new lessons along the way as the seasons rolled on by. I was simultaneously terrified and ecstatic at the discovery and announcement that we’d be getting Go Set a Watchman, set 2 decades after To Kill a Mockingbird. I had to get my hands on it. But I was worried what this future would entail, especially noting it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird.
Before I get any further into this review, let me just mention a few things. Yes, I enjoyed Go Set a Watchman very much. No, it doesn’t compare in quality or overall message to the first novel. It doesn’t change my opinion, appreciation, or respect for To Kill a Mockingbird, or it’s characters. Instead, Go Set a Watchman adds only more depth to the novel, and gives me another vantage point to appreciate it’s profundity.
That’s not to say that the book didn’t throw me through a few loops. I scratched my head at times, gaped about at others, and was stunned for pretty much the rest of the time reading the novel. This review does contain spoilers from here on out.
Since it’s announcement, Go Set a Watchman has been mired in controversy. I won’t get into the thick of how ethical the finding of this lost novel was. It’s done. The book is in the hands of the public. The right people are getting paid. I hope Harper Lee wasn’t taken advantage of in her old age, as many suppose was the case.
Another controversial point was brought to attention when the book was released last month. In Go Set a Watchman, it seems plain as day that the Atticus Finch we know and love, moral compass though he is, is a racist. Jean-Louise discovers the fact when she finds him attending a special town meeting that involved several white-supremacist speakers. The novel revolves around how she learns to reconcile that notion with the man she knew growing up. She can’t. The image she had of her father is shattered. And the reader can’t help but feel let down as well. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating.
But I truly don’t believe, by the end of the novel, that he is an outright and hateful racist. His attendance at this meeting, we learn, is a way of saving face with the town, as well as getting political and strategic knowledge for his court cases in the future. At least, this is what he tells Scout. He does, however, deem segregation appropriate in Maycomb, something Jean-Louise simply cannot fathom.
Go Set a Watchman is a book I’ll have to read again to grasp more fully. Its message isn’t entirely made clear. What I glean from it though is that Jean-Louise placed Atticus on a pedestal, and saw him as the very image of morality, a code of honor so infallible she’d be more likely to say “what would Atticus do,” than Jesus. This was the moment in her life she first realized that her father was simply a man, and not the god she made him out to be; that he was capable of erring.
For a book written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and then never published, it’s easy to point at it and say it’s not a finished story. Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it was never touched after her editors encouraged her to write a piece about Scout and Jem’s childhood years. It isn’t as refined, obviously. And her writing ability grew greatly in the process of creating To Kill a Mockingbird. But it’s clear that this draft (if it can be called that) is better than many writers’ finished works. What struck me as most impressive about this book was how little her characters and settings changed when writing a book 20 years earlier. There are some big continuity errors, yes. I just sort of overlooked those though, and it all fits together like a bigger story.
Reading this at long last is a bittersweet experience. It conveyed just about the same emotions to me as a bad breakup would have, even though I know in the long run it’d be for the best. Jean-Louise’ remixed understanding of the world she lived in and the town she left behind is a shattering experience, one I’m glad I experienced, and one that must have taken some serious chops to write. This is a book that will sit heavy on my mind for many days to come, methinks.
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Harper Lee Collection: To Kill a Mockingbird + Go Set a Watchman (Dual-Slip Case)
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