Warning: Long post ahead.
Yes, I read it. I couldn’t NOT read it — if nothing else, I was too curious, and the revelations about Watchman’s plot revealed in the last few days only made me more curious. I did not buy it; I read it in two sittings in the bookstore cafe, something I used to do years ago when I was younger and poorer but wouldn’t normally do now when I can afford to buy all the books I want. In this case, reading what I’ve read about the book’s turbulent history, I was pretty much convinced that a younger and perhaps more sound-of-mind Harper Lee would not have approved publication of this book in this form, and I didn’t want to give any money to anyone who may be exploiting an elderly woman who can no longer defend her literary legacy. Having read the book, I’m more convinced than ever that Lee would not have knowingly OK’d the publication of this book, but I’m also not sorry I read it.
First off, let’s talk about what Go Set a Watchman (apparently) is and is not. It reads like it should be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird; it features our familiar main character, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (here in third-person limited point of view rather than the first-person of Mockingbird). She is very recognizably the same girl, but now she is twenty-six, living in New York (as Nelle Harper Lee was when she wrote the novel), and returning home to visit her aging father Atticus in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama.
But this is not a sequel, as near as we can tell from the manuscript’s murky history; it’s the book Lee wrote first. Her first draft, if you will, and while her writing style is strong and skillful and recognizable, it also sometimes reads like a first draft, especially towards the end, when she tries to pull everything together and doesn’t quite succeed.
Apparently, Lee’s editor convinced her to take the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood that are embedded in Watchman and fashion those into a different novel, a novel that confronts the same issue — the deeply embedded racism of the segregated South — through the eyes of a child rather than a young adult, and (importantly) against the backdrop of the Great Depression rather than on the cusp of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Watchman and Mockingbird are, in a way, telling the same story — a young white Southern girl discovers that the community she loves and belongs to is capable of deep and vicious racism. The difference that makes a difference to most readers is that in Mockingbird, Scout’s father, Atticus, viewed through the hero-worshipping eyes of a child, stands against that racism. In Watchman, the older Attticus stands for a certain kind of racism, and he becomes Scout’s antagonist rather than her hero. Continue reading