Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

It's no secret that I love TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. (Case in point: the street names in THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING are my idea of a tribute.) It's been one of my favorite classics since I read it in the ninth grade, and when I reread it several years ago, my affection only grew. The scene in which Scout stands on Boo's porch and sees their summer through his eyes is one of the finest moments in American literature, and upon rereading it, I was literally moved to tears. So when they announced the publication of GO SET A WATCHMAN, MOCKINGBIRD's long-lost sister story, I felt an odd mixture of excitement, curiosity, and fear. My actual reading of the book stirred up even more impressions, the most pressing of which I've summarized below.

Atticus Finch's Transformation

When the first reviews materialized, I was shocked to learn that the Atticus Finch these reviewers had become acquainted with was a pale shadow of the character that had blazed so brightly in MOCKINGBIRD. But the Atticus Finch I found in the pages themselves was not nearly as terrible as those reviews had led me to believe. Yes, he joined the KKK in his younger years (and may have even been a member when he defended Tom Robinson). Yes, he's on a city council whose members spew hate and vitriol. But his reasons, which I won't spoil here, are much less inflammatory than these reviews suggested, and he lets those members spew their vitriol for one simple reason: because the Constitution says they can.

In my mind, Atticus's comments on African-Americans, which multiple reviews reported, are the most troublesome, for they reveal his personal beliefs. Do I agree with them? Absolutely not. But do they contradict the Atticus we came to know and love in MOCKINGBIRD? Unfortunately, I have to say no again. We get a fuller picture of his character in this follow-up, and it seems like he enjoys playing the part of benevolent protector. It's not bad to be benevolent or even to protect underrepresented people, but when you think these qualities make you better than the poor, dear souls you've taken it upon yourself to shelter, you run into trouble.

Of course, I can't complain too loudly, since I suspect that revulsion is just what Ms. Lee wanted us to feel. To make the point she ultimately wanted to make, Atticus had to fall.

From Contemporary to Historical

The book never mentions the year or even the Supreme Court case that has everyone up in arms, but based on context clues, I suspect the case in question was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which was handed down in the spring of 1954. Since MOCKINGBIRD was published in the summer of 1960, it's safe to assume that WATCHMAN is set sometime in this six-year interval. In other words, if WATCHMAN had been published shortly after it was written, it would have been a contemporary, but like MOCKINGBIRD, it makes a lot more of an impact as a historical.

History, as we know, is fond of repeating itself, and it's easier to swallow medicine in the past than in the present. Integration has strong parallels to the charged political issues of today, including and especially the issue of same-sex marriage. One conversation in particular between Atticus and Jean Louise had just as much to say on same-sex marriage as it did on integration, and I thought Jean Louise made important points on both sides of the debate. It goes to show that issues are issues precisely because there are thoughtful arguments on both sides, and yet we get so caught up in fending off the other side's attacks that we often forget to listen to what they have to say. (Even Jean Louise admits that her initial response to the decision was one of disagreement and defensiveness.)

Sequel or First Draft?

This has been perhaps the most contentious issue surrounding the publication of the book. Is WATCHMAN a sequel to or a first draft of our beloved MOCKINGBIRD?

In my opinion, it's neither.

To be fair, my judgment may be a little clouded, since I happen to think MOCKINGBIRD is one of the finest standalones ever penned, but hear me out. Sequels are continuations of a character's ongoing story, but it's clear that Ms. Lee never came back to WATCHMAN after she finished MOCKINGBIRD. As other reviews have pointed out, there are inconsistencies between MOCKINGBIRD and WATCHMAN, including one glaring difference in the description of the trial (which would have had a major impact on the final sequences of MOCKINGBIRD). To be a true sequel, WATCHMAN would have had to have been revised or at least proofread to match the narrative fleshed out in MOCKINGBIRD.

That raises the question of whether WATCHMAN is a draft of the novel that became MOCKINGBIRD, and though I believe it was a necessary stepping stone, I don't see it as a strict first draft. The story arcs bear no resemblance to each other (though WATCHMAN does include quite a few flashbacks to Jean Louise's days as Scout), and they're also separated by nearly twenty years. (Some might argue, as this article  does, that Tay Hohoff, Ms. Lee's editor, helped her craft the story she meant to tell all along, but since I don't know what goes on in Ms. Lee's head (and since Ms. Hohoff died more than forty years ago), I think it's impossible to say what Ms. Lee did or didn't intend.) Furthermore, I don't know about you, but I don't attach the first drafts of my manuscripts to the final proofs and stick both in a safety deposit box, which, according to multiple sources, is where WATCHMAN was discovered. First drafts are for obliterating, not for putting under lock and key.

(I should add the WATCHMAN is a lot less polished than MOCKINGBIRD, which adds credence to the theory I rejected above. WATCHMAN was quite tell-y, and while it's clear that Ms. Lee can write, it's also clear that her grip on craft wasn't as strong when she wrote WATCHMAN. If Ms. Hohoff encouraged Ms. Lee to show all the things she told in WATCHMAN, MOCKINGBIRD easily could have been the result. WATCHMAN also owes its emotional punch to MOCKINGBIRD, as the former's climax would have fallen flat without the latter's character development.)

If you feel squicky about reading a book Ms. Lee might or might not have sanctioned, I can respect that decision. But if you're basing your judgment on other reviews (including this one), I highly recommend you let the book speak for itself. I liked it much more than I thought I would, and it clearly got me thinking. And isn't that exactly what a book is supposed to do?

5 comments:

Ben Spendlove said...

Thanks for this review. I was certainly feeling squicky about reading the book, but I might give it a try—once the library has a copy available. Also, squicky is a fantastic word. Where in the world did it come from?

JeffO said...

One of the things I find interesting about the new version (based on what I have heard, since I have not read WATCHMAN, and it's been at least four years since I read MOCKINGBIRD) is there are some who say the WATCHMAN Atticus is actually a more believable, realistic Atticus than the MOCKINGBIRD version. I'd have to read both of them before saying so for myself.

Rather than a first draft, I think the relationship between WATCHMAN and MOCKINGBIRD is probably more like Archaeopteryx and, well, a mockingbird.

Maria said...

Thanks for the review. The other reviews were making me wary, but this encourages me to read.

Karen lee Hallam said...

Very interesting, indeed, Krista. This review is the first I've read about WATCHMAN. I was nervous to read others that would throw out the book. You've encouraged me to go ahead and read it. With open eyes. :)

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Ben, I wish I knew where squicky came from! Unfortunately, it's too new for www.etymonline.com to have an entry...

JeffO, Atticus is certainly more human in WATCHMAN, with strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears. In that way, I wonder if we were seeing the Atticus in MOCKINGBIRD from a child's distorted view. Scout thought Atticus could do no wrong, so he didn't. It makes you wonder if Scout unconsciously left things out in MOCKINGBIRD.

Maria, I think every reader is going to have a very unique and very personal reaction to this book. I mean, that's true of every book, but because we're all going to bring a lot of baggage to this read, that's probably going to create an even more unique reading experience. If you do decide to read it, you'll have to come back and tell us what you thought.

That's a great way to put it, Karen. Read it, but with your eyes wide open.