Editor’s Note: The following book review and commentary may contain spoilers.
It was Harper Lee who first told readers that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, but is it a sin to kill one of the most saintly and beloved characters of all time, her own Atticus Finch? The man who launched a thousand baby names returns in her second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” 55 years later, and his daughter is utterly disillusioned to discover her father is in fact a racist and is participating in suspicious “Citizen Councils” meant to maintain segregation.
While his now irritating halo of benevolence remains, old man Atticus now defends a young black man simply to keep the NAACP out of his beloved Maycomb County.
As a literary relic, “Go Set a Watchman” is too utterly juicy not to read at least once. If it was an undiscovered Harper Lee science fiction novel that would be one thing, but the connection between “Watchman” and “Mockingbird” is profoundly compelling and endlessly fascinating. To see a character as heroic as Atticus made into a deeply flawed human leaves many readers feeling as betrayed by Harper Lee as Scout is by her own father. But also, on many levels, it’s more realistic.
Whether it’s a less-accomplished sequel or a glorified set of draft notes for our accepted existing classic, “Watchman” adds layers of meaning to our understanding that we will be considering for years to come. As an authentic anachronism of one author’s thought process on race, from a book that ultimately stands as one of the classics on that subject, and landing in our laps during the month when arguments about the Confederate flag in the South are still raging, the appearance of the time capsule that is “Go Set a Watchman” is so major, it almost seems contrived.
The only thing more contrived is the novel itself. With so many questions surrounding this book, let’s focus on the question, “Is it, on its own, a good book?” Not really. The themes of social justice that Harper Lee covered so memorably in “Mockingbird” are either rehashed or pre-hashed here, but to far lesser effect. The lens of childhood through which “To Kill a Mockingbird” is told adds a magical and innocent quality that is largely lacking here.
There are plenty of passages that still sing with a lovely prose style, and plenty in Scout’s voice that come through beautifully. Harper Lee expressed what she wanted to say about racism, compassion and justice through the compelling action of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But here, grown up Scout literally just says what Lee wanted to say, and it is boring and didactic. Throughout the book, the dialogue, and there is plenty of it, is pretty terrible. This was before Harper Lee learned that ancient creative writing dictum, “Show, don’t tell.”
While Atticus comes out as dismaying and backward, Scout — as the grown woman Jean Louise — is still the tomboy she was in her childhood, and her quest for selfhood within the strict definitions of adult femininity in her hometown makes another interesting layer, one that is expressed more adeptly and subtly than the larger issues of racism. Scout’s wry and attentive voice is the one to listen to, even when she is running on a bit, perhaps we should have been christening those babies “Scout,” not “Atticus,” all this time.
No one could reasonably prefer “Go Set a Watchman” to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for reasons both ideological and artistic, but as cans of worms go, it really doesn’t get any better than this one. To simply consider the stylistic journey from one book to another is a fascinating (not to mention inspirational) line of contemplation. And also, in our era of fan fiction and instant reader feedback, we must ponder what exactly we think Harper Lee owes us, and to whom these invented people really belong.
We might never know if this new book was actually written before the original, but I find it pretty hard to believe that an editor plucked the seed of “Mockingbird” out of “Watchman” and tended it until it grew to what we know and love. It seems more likely when you read it that “Watchman” was written afterward. Or we can revisit that Truman Capote theory. Perhaps what really happened was Harper Lee is a huge “Games of Thrones” fan, saw what that guy does to his characters and the readers who love them, and sat down just last year and decided she could do something even worse.
Do not be “afraid” to read this book. You can’t ruin “To Kill a Mockingbird” unless you accidentally drop your copy in the bathtub. I still love “Stars Wars” despite the existence of those useless prequels; the real Darth Vadar is no less compelling even if I remember that technically George Lucas also made him, at one point, a whiny, unconvincing teenager with a rattail.
Atticus Finch can still reassure you from the pages of “To Kill a Mockingbird” if you need him to. But, if reading “Go Set a Watchman” sends you back into the pages of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and you see things you never saw before, well, I’m afraid that is just part of coming of age.