Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee)

July 14, 2015

12:01am - Go Set a Watchman automatically downloads to my Kindle. 

12:02am - Harper Lee begins the hasty process of dismantling all I thought I knew and loved about my favorite book in the world.

I am going to boldly state here that the release of Harper Lee's second book is most likely the literary event of my lifetime. There is no story more beloved than To Kill a Mockingbird, no characters more revered than Atticus Finch and his children. There has been an abundance of criticism over why Lee has chosen now to publish a second book, widely described as what was actually her first book and published today in first-draft form. Thick are the questions and mistrust over whether or nor Ms. Lee is in full enough possession of her mental faculties to even have truly given permission for this work to have been published. There are accusations about greedy caretakers and cunning attorneys. The release of the story is wrought with controversy.

To that, all of that, I say...none of it matters.

What does matter? Three things.

1. The story. Watchman isn't the first book to be published under a cloud of suspicion, nor is it the first publication to be met with controversy. It'll really earn its wings when it gets banned somewhere. It's probably just the only time the general public has been aware of it, given the immense popularity of the author's first novel. This dabbles in the actual review portion of this post, but Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird are now mutually symbiotic. The complexity of Watchman shovels layers onto Mockingbird's characters who were previously accepted as without flaw.  

2. The author. Folks, I have read some bios and some legal briefs and have conducted some personal interviews concerning Ms. Nelle Harper Lee (Sorry, I know my Mockingbird.), and there is one thing I know beyond all faintest fog of doubt. The woman is brilliant. She's observant, she's keenly aware of how twisted the nature of human beings can be, and she has never - not in 50+ years - ever not known how to protect her book. She has sued individuals, the city of Monroeville, organizations...she has fervently defended her personal rights, her personal privacy, her rights as an author, and the rights to her Mockingbird for decades, and she has done so very well. I have lots of theories about why she chose NOW to publish, but the most important part of this point is that Nelle Lee has proven a thousand times over that legally, she knows exactly what she is doing. How odd for the world to have begged this woman for years to pleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease let us read more of her work, she gives it to us, and we question her for it! And honestly, the controversy has only drawn more attention and sales for her, so I wouldn't at all be surprised if she purposely orchestrated it that way. Read a little about her and you'll see that option is not so far-fetched.

3. The legacy. It's interesting the number of people who keep saying they won't read it because of what they've heard or reviews they have read, but we are talking about the most widely anticipated novel of the 21st century. In as little as two years, the publication drama won't even be remembered because it will be entirely swallowed up by the hugeness of the actual story. By the time my girls are old enough to read To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman will be widely accepted not simply as the sequel but also as the true complementary companion to Lee's first book. It enables readers to consider the characters and plot more deeply. To refuse that now is just...not understandable to me.  

So what of it, then? Well, I'll tell you what Go Set a Watchman was for me.

*Semi-spoiler alert. I didn't read a single review before I read it, and advise that same course. I won't come right out and mess up anything for you, but I would prefer you NOT read this part before you read the book for your own little self.

Go Set a Watchman is set about 25 years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Some things are exactly the same in Maycomb, and some things are wildly different. Little Scout in all grown up but she's still Ms. Jean Louise to most people. She has a suitor who's crazy for her and rather a good match, someone Jem or Atticus would have chosen for her should she ever have allowed it. We get a bigger, more complete picture of the Finch family from Calpurnia and Atticus to Aunty Alexandra and Uncle Jack. Those who were absolute pains in little Scout Finch's neck are those she depends on most as Ms. Jean Louise.

The book spans the few weeks Jean Louise is in Maycomb, come home for a short vacation from her busy life in New York. We follow her as she makes some disturbing discoveries about Atticus, combined with perfectly familiar reminiscent tales about what she, Jem, and little Charles Baker Harris were up to for their adolescent years. We get to see how Jem continued to look out for his baby sister and how Atticus's parenting shaped both his children. We get so many questions answered..such as what Scout's teenage years were like for Atticus as a single father, or what had actually happened to Scout's and Jem's mother.

There's so much reference back to Mockingbird that you are tempted to feel safe with these characters, because in To Kill a Mockingbird, everything was somewhat okay, because at least Atticus is honest. At least Scout has Jem. At least Scout has Dill. At least Scout has Calpurnia. At least Scout can have her questions answered clearly, because at least Scout has Atticus.

But what if she didn't? In Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee answers that bigger question and shows us what happens to Jean Louise Finch when the man she once worshiped isn't who she thought he was. Harper Lee answers that question and she scars the hearts of readers in unexpected ways as she writes about race relations, daddy issues, segregation, privilege (racial and socioeconomic), and love.

That makes us as readers, as Mockingbird fans, really uncomfortable. Because all that is good and right with Mockingbird is wrapped up in Atticus Finch.

I think I might know why Harper Lee waited so long to publish this book. Maybe she couldn't bear the thought of destroying the Atticus we all thought he was. Of taking a man we admired as simple and wholesome and good and just, and complicating him all up so that nobody can figure out what he is anymore. Or shoot, maybe she just put a timer on it and was like, Imma just publish this in 2015 if we aren't all teleporting to Mars by then. Because, really, who knows?

I do know that Go Set a Watchman does exactly what I was hoping her second publication would do, which is to prove she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Rumored nastily to have been a total fraud, Harper Lee convinced me the very moment I finished Mockingbird in the 9th grade that this lady is not just an author but a writer, and that writers have to write...they can't not write. I have believed for all this time that Harper Lee has piles of written work, she just didn't want to publish yet. I believe the first-draft claims, because there is some looseness to the work as a whole, a few scenes we could do without. But the writing style, the literary patterns are so similar in Watchman that I found myself smiling and highlighting like crazy just because I recognized the cadence of her work.

And it is beautiful. 

Don't you think?