Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s latest book in 55 years, came out yesterday. I finished it a couple of hours ago. I tell you that in part to brag, and also to show how fascinating I find the book’s status of a legacy-maker. This story will redefine Lee’s career, because now we have more than one work to judge her writing by. And boy, what a book to follow up with. I also finished this book faster than you preordering Half-Life 3 the moment it gets announced, because my feelings for it are, shall we say, complicated.
Scout- sorry, she’s Jean Louise now- grew up in the past 20 years since The Ham Costume Incident, and at the start of the book leaves her home in New York for a quick vacation in Maycomb. She meets up with Henry ‘Hank’ Clinton, a man hell-bent on marrying Jean Louise and a childhood friend that we’ve never met until this point. The first 100 pages of this 300-page book are, let’s be frank, not good. To Kill A Mockingbird’s not known for its dynamic plotting or eye-grabbing action, but I have to deny entry into my bookshelf by some minimum criteria. The main conflict in this first third concerns whether Jean Louise will marry this boring, thinly characterized nothing of a man. His ego gets wounded, yes, he’s a lawyer following Atticus’s footsteps like he’s sneaking up on the old man, sure, but there isn’t enough about Hank to determine whether the reader wants Scout to marry him, dump him, or both. Dill’s in Italy in this book, but he promised to marry Scout when they grew up. Why can’t he be the love interest? Sharp readers will argue, “Dill’s gay, and so was his inspiration,” and I find that that’s more reason to include him. He’s in a stigmatized social group not yet addressed in either book, and he could have a conflict regarding his promise to Scout vs. his own sexuality. Hank matters so little to the main story that you wonder if Lee forgot him too and stuck him in at the end just for completionist’s sake.
Big fans of the original novel might enjoy catching up with the town at this point, even for characters like Willoughby and the river guy that were ‘always there’ but not worth mentioning the first time around. People who like this part will not enjoy the main thrust of the book, and I’ll just stick a ‘mild spoiler warning’ sticker over everything in this blog post but the last paragraph.
Jean Louise finds an anti-black pamphlet full of racist ‘science’ in her old house. As she does the sensible thing and tries to trash it, Aunt Alexandria stops her, telling her that the paper belongs to her father. Scout’s all nuh-huh, and Auntie says ya-huh, your father’s in a citizen council meeting for it right now. Jean Louise runs to the courtroom, the same courtroom her father defended an unpopular black man in, to see her moral compass introduce the most racist speaker in the world for a lecture that must’ve confused black people for orcs. Atticus gives tacit approval the whole time. Also, Hank Clinton’s at the meeting, but that just simplifies the whole “will she or won’t she?” plot. Remember the ending of To Kill A Mockingbird, when Atticus says to Scout, “Most people are [nice], Scout, when you finally see them,”? Yeah, Atticus is not like most people.
I heard from someone before the book came in that Atticus is racist in Go Set A Watchman. First thought: that’s sad, I rather liked him. Second thought: I MUST READ THIS BOOK NOW. Twain raised the stakes in Huckleberry Finn through his protagonist risking his immortal soul; Go Set A Watchman raises the stakes by corrupting the purest soul in Maycomb. The audience is left with the same feelings of horror and betrayal Scout carries. If you read To Kill A Mockingbird and considered Atticus the main character/favorite character/ fantasy for those times daddy beat you, this twist may not sit well with you. And you find out later that he’s only quasi-racist, reacting to Brown v. Board of Education with the whole “grumble grumble state’s rights” shtick that motivates his citizen council meetings and distrust of NAACP lawyers. Even then, he says, “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people,” (Lee, 246) and “You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you?” (Lee, 242). Talk about an asteroid collision in your heart. I wonder if young scholars of history feel this way when they discover that Lincoln believed white people to be superior to blacks. Still, Lincoln freed the slaves, and Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson. Most of the circumstantial and indirect evidence in To Kill A Mockingbird doesn’t support the change in Atticus, but nothing in the original contradict it. And look, he got old. The world went through a war and a depression. Changes like this can happen to the best of us. Once a father figure, Atticus is now a grandfather figure. Go Set A Watchman was actually written first by Lee, before her editor told her to write the backstory instead and gave us TKAM. This decision only gives more power and impact to the events in the 2015 release.
Now Scout’s weaksauce character arc in To Kill A Mockingbird gets replaced by a strong and solid one in the sequel. She learns (SPICY SPOILER WARNING, TAKE YOUR VIRGIN EYES TO THE LAST PARAGRAPH) to become her own conscience, confronting and challenging her father before learning that they share the same stubborn attitude and even some Southern Pride and racist ideas. She no longer has to worship Atticus, but she must learn to tolerate him, perhaps to still love him. Here’s the strength of the book: it’s a better coming-of-age story than To Kill A Mockingbird. TKAM is about learning to tolerate people that others hate and fear. GSAW discusses learning to tolerate people you hate and fear. Jean Louise is no longer Scout the child. She’s an adult, and must follow her own moral map instead of her dad’s. What a great arc and lesson for readers, especially for the one typing this blog post who understands that his conversations with grandparents on gay marriage have gone nowhere and will go nowhere. So it’s with this soaring sensation from reading a powerful story that I tell you that Go Set A Watchman (pulling words out of mouth like they’re anvils attached by string) is… not… that… well-written.
Yes, you heard an unpublished writer criticize the mastery of a Pulitzer Prize winner. But answer me this- what perspective is Go Set A Watchman in? It switches from third person limited to third person omnipotent to first person to some passages I can’t even tell. Important character beats, like Calpurnia’s revelation, are missed entirely. We flashback to cheesy events with “wacky” misunderstandings that most of the time don’t connect to theme or plot. And if you thought the last book wasn’t subtle, this one spells out all the previous foreshadowing at the opportune moments and just tells you the same moral I listed earlier. The main driving point for me is the character arc, and even that seems out of place. Jean Louise has lived in liberal New York for years now- wouldn’t she have found her own moral compass away from Atticus by then? And for a book about following your own moral compass, Lee picked an outdated and clear-cut dilemma to focus on.
I knew nothing could live up to 55 years of anticipation for readers. I didn’t expect this follow-up to get this close to greatness and then fall apart the moment you lay a hand on it. Maybe a film adaptation will clean up this emotionally powerful and gripping story that feels like the first draft it is and may contain some ruinous flaws. But make no mistake- this is a story worth telling and worth writing. It’s somehow for lovers of TKAM and not for them at the same time. I haven’t read any other reviews for this book yet- perhaps I’m wrong and this book is all great or all bad, but I’ll stick to my conscience on this one.