So I finally got Harper Lee’s “new” book last week, and since I was single and childless for a bit (husband on work trip, kid at camp) I read like a madwoman. Expect a lot of books to appear soon, since I attacked my TBR pile with a vengeance.
Go Set A Watchman, despite the hype and the proclamations and the people who refuse to read it on principle, isn’t bad. It would be an OK first novel if it was published today, but not a masterpiece. The To Kill a Mockingbird characters are there, but they are skeletal, and the plot centers more around Jean Louise’s personal disillusionment with her father and her loved ones than around the fascinating, child’s-eye view of the life of a small town that made Mockingbird such a delight to read. I read an article a while back that pretty much sums up what I think of it: It’s a great first draft. The article said Go Set a Watchman was the book Harper Lee presented first to her publisher, who told her that the most interesting parts were those about Jean Louise (Scout) as a child, and that she should flesh out those parts. She did just that, and the result was To Kill A Mockingbird. Reading it with that in mind, I found it easier to enjoy the book for what it is – a first novel by a young author. It’s about a young woman who has worshipped her father and valued her upbringing, but after some time away, comes home to discover that the people she has put on pedestals are only human and the town she loved has a hidden darker side she did not see as a child.
Maybe Harper Lee wasn’t competent to make the decision to publish the book after all these years. Maybe her initial editor was correct – the book wasn’t ready as it was, but had potential. But I do think that the book was published at a time when it can teach us something. To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960, in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, when its message of justice for an innocent man regardless of his race resonated with people who were working for change. In that story, we are encouraged to see Atticus Finch as a crusader for equal rights, and Scout’s view of the world as that of a color-blind child who knows instinctively that racism (and sexism, now that I think of it) is wrong. But today, when it is becoming more and more clear that racism is alive and well in America, and has indeed just been lurking beneath the surface in many communities, Go Set A Watchman‘s revelations about the inherent racism of Jean Louise’s community are as relevant to our lives today as they were when Harper Lee wrote them. This is sad, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to discuss it. Many people are angry that characters they’ve loved for years have turned out to have racist ideals, but I think if they look closer at their own friends and families, they might find that many people have ideals that are…well, less than ideal, and the only way to fight racism (or sexism, or homophobia, or…) is to start examining it honestly. As a white person, I have to say I prefer the noble white people in Mockingbird to the fearful, bigoted white people in Watchman – but that’s kind of the point – Scout does too, until she realizes they are the same people and she has just been blind to it.
OK, I just saved this draft and went to lunch, and happened upon this post in Book Riot that so perfectly expresses what I was trying to say in the previous paragraph that I will just let it speak for me. If you don’t want to click over and read the whole thing, this quote distills it:
Mockingbird is racism for children. It sees only what a child sees.
Watchman is the crashing down of ideals that comes with adulthood, the understanding that everyone is fallible, that many of the people you care about are more racist than you could imagine when you loved them with the innocent trust of a child.
Of course, none of this changes the fact that Mockingbird truly is the better crafted book. The prose is multilayered, the characters are fully developed humans, and the town itself comes to life in a way that it simply doesn’t in Watchman. (Worst part of Watchman: There’s no Boo Radley.) But go read it anyway, because it’s full of things that will make you angry, make you cringe, or make you ill. Most importantly it might make you think, which is the highest aspiration of literature, at least in my world.