The Internet abounds with poor reviews of Go Set A Watchman, but I loved the book. Before you send me messages questioning both my sanity and my literary taste, I must specify that I looked at it from the beginning from a different point of view from most people. Bear with me, and I will explain why. Then you can skewer me in the comments section below.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all time favorite books. Its message moved me powerfully as an adolescent, and is one of the books I re-read frequently. When I heard the first draft of Harper Lee’s novel was found and would be published, I was thrilled, and pre-ordered the book immediately. The fact this book was a draft was what made it so appealing.
Unlike a lot of the reviews I read, I do not see this book as tarnishing Ms. Lee’s legacy. Instead, I see this as the book that was percolating in her brain for some time before she sat at the typewriter. It comes from her passion, and it is the book she wrote for herself. It is based on her perceptions, her experiences, and it is a beautifully raw glimpse into Ms. Lee’s mind. It is not smooth, not polished, and yes, the characters are undeveloped and the dialogue speech-like, but it is an unedited first effort. You can see the bare bones of the great novel that came later, with careful guidance from her editor. Perhaps that perception was heightened by the fact I re-read Mockingbird just prior to Watchman, but to me, it was quite visible.
It’s not perfect, but I wasn’t expecting that. The flashes back to childhood that eventually developed into Mockingbird are interesting, but are almost ancillary to the story. The initial plot, eventual subplot, of Jean Louise (Scout) and Henry’s budding relationship confused the story a bit, making it plod along at times. Yes, there are inconsistencies, but I would expect this in a first draft. What I would give to be able to read the first drafts from other beloved writers! I’m sure you’d see similar issues, before professional editors got involved. Since we haven’t been given that ability, the publication of this manuscript is blazing a trail.
Several friends asked me if I felt this book tarnished Atticus Finch. My answer is if you take only what is in Mockingbird as his whole persona without ever wondering if there could be more to his story, then yes, you will feel this book tarnishes his reputation. What Watchman shows is, in my opinion, a more realistic portrayal of Atticus as a man who was born in the Turn of the Century, and lived his whole life in the segregated South. He is devoted to Justice, but has his own personal opinions that were developed in a specific environment. What he would say to a child asking questions, and admit to an adult may be different. Jean Louise has a hard time in this book coming to terms with this, just as perhaps Harper Lee would if this was revealed about her own father. She had to come up with this idea somewhere, and where else but in her own life, or in the life of someone she knows? Because this is the point of the whole book, and I can’t imagine a real life crisis similar to Jean Louise’s didn’t happen to her. This whole drama within the book I found fascinating.
The other part I loved is the way Ms. Lee had Uncle Jack play the Greek Chorus at the end of the book. When you read his speech (it’s too rough to call dialogue), you see flashes of the brilliance she was able to achieve in Mockingbird. I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t what convinced her original editor she was a writer worth developing. I won’t spoil that for you, but I think it’s my favorite part of the book.
I was sitting in LAX last week, waiting for my delayed flight, when I finished the book. I closed it, and looked at the cover for a bit, digesting what I had just read. A woman sitting across from me asked me if I thought it was worth reading. She had bought it, but was afraid to read it after hearing the reviews. She said it was such a shame what they did to the elderly Harper Lee in publishing the manuscript, and that she would feel guilty about reading it.
Is there greed involved in the publishing of this book? Perhaps. Elder abuse, as some reviewers have claimed? I am not qualified to say. My personal opinion is Harper Lee kept that manuscript for a reason – whatever that reason was. Did she hope to someday revise it, but decided our society was not yet ready to accept the way the story develops? Did she keep it for sentimental reasons? We’ll never know. I know I am grateful she did keep it, because it gave me a look at how a writer progresses from idea to rough draft, and then finally to Great Novel. She left the world a gift, and I hope enough people will look at it in just that light. I do.
Thank you, Harper Lee.