Oh hey. I know I’ve vanished for the better part of a month – life changes, busyness, lack of inspiration, and all that jazz. But I’m back, and with a (long-winded, most likely) review of Go Set a Watchman, which I couldn’t resist buying early and devouring in the course of a day. I was apprehensive as some early reviews drifted into my purview – everything from the book being a shameless money grab, to Lee ruining one of the most beloved literary figures of all time – but I have an incurable sense of curiosity. And, in all honesty, I wasn’t going to not read a To Kill a Mockingbird sequel. Some spoilers ahead.
Harper Lee has such as keen grasp of children, their nature and way of thinking. It was apparent in To Kill a Mockingbird, and she brings the same warmth and emotion to writing some significant flashback scenes in Watchman. This was one of my favorite parts of the book – finding new anecdotes of Scout’s early days in Maycomb, full of hilarity and moving character insights. There’s her, Jem and Dill reenacting a religious revival and Scout being caught naked by the reverend with her father; there’s Scout living with the terrible thought that she’s pregnant for nine months because of girlish rumors from school; and many more. Like Mockingbird, Lee continues to deal with some serious moral issues in her novel, but so much of her story is wrapped around simple tales of growing up in a small town with unforgettable characters, and how they leave a mark on you for life.
On a side note, I can understand why publishers wanted her to write Mockingbird and publish that instead because I found her flashback scenes to be the best part of Watchman, though they were scattered throughout in a much less structured plot than her first novel.
Did Harper Lee ruin Atticus?
This made me afraid of picking up the book, because Atticus is one of my favorite fictional characters, and if there was one unavoidable spoiler about Watchman, it was that Lee turned him into a racist. Maybe this made me brace for the very worst, because I thought she made him into some kind of a raving madman – but it was quite the contrary. I actually found him terribly consistent as a character. Still a gentleman through and through, with a sharp mind and opinions entirely his own. Yes, you can quote him from Mockingbird and quote him from Watchman and be horrified at some of these juxtapositions, but he is still Atticus. I won’t get into the politics and race relations (and I’m sure this has been and will continue to be one of the book’s most talked about aspects), but I will simply say this regarding his character: Atticus is human, and the philosophy and culture of his times inevitably will have their effect on him, just as they do on all of us. This isn’t to justify his views, but to understand him, and how Lee humanizes him.
The outrage over his character is mirrored in the outrage Scout feels as she tells the story. I wonder if it’s poetic in one sense – that we have “grown up” with Scout, we have idolized Atticus with her, and we have watched him fall, all through her eyes. Atticus is no longer the hero of this story, his daughter is. Lee uses his character’s evolution as a springboard for developing Scout – she would not have the passion and conviction she does if she wasn’t her father’s daughter, and she would not have shown it in Watchman if her father remained exactly the same.
Still Growing Up
One review I read put it this way: Mockingbird is about Scout discovering her father is a god; Watchman is about Scout discovering her father is not a god. My take on it is this: Mockingbird is about a young girl discovering the world and its people can be extraordinarily, irrationally cruel. Watchman is about a young woman discovering that even our heroes are human. It is another tale of growing up, another coming of age, but in a more nuanced and specific way. Haven’t we all experienced both? Isn’t the reality of our heroes’ flaws so much more painful than the reality of the world’s brokenness? Atticus was never perfect – but he was nearly that in Scout’s eyes for most her life. One story is about shedding some of childhood’s innocence, another is about coming more fully into adulthood.
Overall, Watchman was good. Compared to the average novel put out today, it’s very good. Compared to Mockingbird, it falls short. The narrative flow of Watchman is not as strong, and the emotional impact is heavily dependent on its predecessor – the blow Scout feels from Atticus is doubled if you know the Atticus of Mockingbird (though Lee brings a lot of that to light within her new book too). The scene with Cal is heartbreaking. Yet, her storytelling ability, sense of humor, and understanding of human nature is still excellent, uniquely hers, and reminiscent of her first classic.
I’ll admit, I breathed a sigh of relief when I closed the book still loving Scout and Atticus. And sure, someone’s in this for the marketing and money, but I had a good time too – so thanks for unearthing Watchman.