Sunday, July 19, 2015

My thoughts on Go Set a Watchman {discussion & review}.

(Just a little warning: there will be spoilers for Go Set a Watchman in this post. I can't write about it without doing that, and besides, I think basically everyone has read about the only real "spoiler" anyway.)

Several years ago, I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. It's such a well-known classic that I knew I'd probably be able to appreciate it. But I was surprised by how much I loved became one of my favorite books.

The setting and characters were believable and memorable, and even though the story is rather simple, it's so impactful. I really like Harper Lee's writing style. She's just writing about a girl's childhood, but it's told in such an engaging way. I never feel bored reading her writing. Even with most of my favorite books, there's a point where the story drags a bit, but not so with this one.

I also love the humor in To Kill a Mockingbird. For a book that addresses serious issues, I was surprised by how hilarious it could be. There are so many one-liners that make me smile (Scout can be sassy). I like how the story seems to be told by Scout when she's older, because it combines her innocence as a child with the maturity and wisdom of an older person. Basically, the book is beautifully done and unlike anything else I've ever read.

I'd been wanting to reread TKAM (I'll probably be using abbreviations for the titles a lot in this post, because otherwise it would be even longer than it already is) for a while now, so it seemed like the perfect time with Go Set a Watchman coming out this month. I was glad to find that I enjoyed the book just as much the second time around.

So now I'm going to talk about the newly published Harper Lee book, Go Set a Watchman. I'm sure everyone knows about this book now, but just in case you don't, here's a brief overview: Lee wrote this book first. When she submitted it, an editor suggested that she go back and write about the main character's childhood instead (Jean Louise, aka Scout, is 26 in the book). She did just that, and that childhood story was published as To Kill a Mockingbird. This original story was (supposedly) just found recently by Lee's lawyer, and someone decided to publish it. There's been a lot of controversy surrounding the publication of the book: did Harper Lee want it published now or ever? She's almost 90 years old. Some people say her mind is perfectly sound and she's happy about the publication, and others say she's senile and that her lawyers are taking advantage of her. Then, a day or two before the book was published, a new sort of controversy leaked out...but more on that later.

First of all, I'm going to try to explain how I felt about the book simply as a book. It's pretty difficult not to connect it and compare it with To Kill a Mockingbird, but I'll try. I loved the first third of Go Set a Watchman. Here I go comparing again, but the writing style felt very similar to TKAM, which of course I appreciated. The story was lovely and intriguing in its simplicity: a 26 year old daughter coming home to Alabama from New York for her annual visit, worrying about her aging father. My favorite part was definitely the childhood flashback of Scout, Jem, and Dill "playing revival," which features Dill wearing a sheet as the Holy Ghost...oh my goodness! That cracked me up. It felt so accurate to how kids reflect their life experiences in their imaginary play. (And if you have any experience with churchgoing in the South, especially revivals, then you'll get it, too.)

But then things changed. This is the point that everyone has been talking about: Atticus Finch is apparently a racist. When Jean Louise finds out about her father and Hank (her boyfriend) attending that meeting, everything changes. The writing style is even different: it becomes a lot more scattered and less cohesive and simple. From then on, the story is basically Jean Louise struggling mentally with this revelation for a day or so before she finally confronts her father.

I found the book harder to read after that. And I'm not talking about it in terms of its connection with To Kill a Mockingbird. It got pretty political. (Also, the language got worse, which is something that personally bugs me.) I got the gist of what they were talking about, but a few things were fuzzy for me (example: I had never really heard about these community meetings, so at first I was a little baffled as to why it upset Jean Louise so much...until I heard what the speaker at the meeting was saying). A lot of people are saying that this book is ironically timely and applicable to what's happening in our country now, and I get that. I know that it shows how racism can exist even in subtle ways, and even in good people. And I can appreciate the theme of not worshiping a person: it's not realistic to expect someone to be perfect, even if it's your mentor or someone you really look up to. These are good lessons to take from the book, but in terms of actual enjoyment of reading: I liked the first third much more than the rest.

Okay, so now I have to say I felt about the book in connection with To Kill a Mockingbird. I still love that book. I still love Atticus Finch. My appreciation for TKAM isn't lessened in any way, and Atticus' reputation isn't "tarnished" in my eyes. Here's why: Go Set a Watchman isn't really the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, no matter what it's been called. It was written first. It's a first draft of the story. Characters and parts of it (in some cases, entire paragraphs, like the history of the town) were taken and molded into To Kill a Mockingbird. You can't logically read it as a true sequel to TKAM because the stories don't match up. Hank (or Henry) supposedly grew up with Scout, Jem, and Dill, but he doesn't exist in TKAM. The court case that is so important in To Kill a Mockingbird is completely different in Go Set a Watchman (and it has a different outcome), but the details are so similar that it obviously doesn't refer to two separate cases. And remember Francis, the cousin that Scout fought in TKAM? In Go Set a Watchman, he's mentioned as Aunt Alexandra's son, not her grandson.

Our Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird is still the same. He doesn't become the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman. I just can't call a book a sequel when it doesn't match up with the previous one. (Also, on another note, Atticus' racism in GSAW is much different than I expected. From what I'd heard, I was expecting some sort of hateful monster. Of course, his views sound wrong to us today, but his attitude was probably very realistic for that time and place.)

I personally read Go Set a Watchman as the starting place for To Kill a Mockingbird. It made me thankful for the different direction in which Harper Lee took the story. The editor who suggested she go back and focus on Scout's childhood was a genius, because the flashbacks are the most vibrant parts of this book. I think that rather than seeing GSAW as a sequel to TKAM, it's more of an alternate universe. They're like two versions of the same story: one the more idealistic, hopeful, simple version, and the other a harsher reality of what could have been. Preferring one doesn't discredit the other.

From what I've read about Harper Lee's life, Go Set a Watchman was probably very autobiographical. It definitely seems that way, from the extremely visceral reaction that Jean Louise has in the book. It feels like Lee was writing from experience. Basically, it's a story worth telling and worth reading, in my opinion. It's different, and I'll always prefer To Kill a Mockingbird because it's so much more of an enjoyable read. But I'm still glad I read Go Set a Watchman.

I also wanted to mention another book that's connected to these. In between these two, I read a little middle grade book called I Kill the Mockingbird. It was such a fun, addicting read! It's about three best friends who decide to pull a stunt to get their classmates excited about reading To Kill a Mockingbird. The plot could have been a bit more developed, but for such a short book, it worked nicely. I loved the main characters- I would love to be friends with them! :) They were quirky and smart but still realistic. And there's a budding romance in the story that was pretty adorable, too. If you love TKAM, or just appreciate books in general, you'll probably enjoy this one.

If you've read Go Set a Watchman, what did you think of it? If not, are you planning on reading it?


  1. Hmmm... I have heard all about the controversies surrounding this book, and I don't really think I want to read it. For many reasons, but mostly because I feel like reading Go Set a Watchman will cheapen the gorgeousness of Mockingbird.
    I really liked your review! It's probably one of the only reviews I've read that focused on the book as a whole instead of just the "ATTICUS IS A RACIST!!!!! OMG!!!!"
    Here's my opinion:
    I often, in writing my own books, take elements from stories that I gave up on and put them in different writing projects. I feel like this was something Harper Lee did. She gave up on the story of Watchman, but still liked the setting and characters, so she changed it up and fixed the characters and made it into what Mockingbird is today.
    I really think, though, if her publishers are trying to sell this as a sequel to Mockingbird, they should have fixed all of these things in Watchman so that it would be a believable sequel, instead of just publishing the old story. But, honestly, I don't really think the publishers cared about staying true to Mockingbird. Watchman, in my opinion is a completely different book than Mockingbird.
    I don't know where Harper Lee stands in all of this... but anyway...
    There's my rant. Sorry if it doesn't make sense.

    1. Yeah, I feel like that's what Harper Lee did, too. She took elements of this story and changed them into TKAM. I don't know if the publishers are actually marketing it as a sequel, but I've heard so many people calling it a sequel, and it's really not. It is an interesting perspective, though, to get to see a story in its original form and compare it to what it became.

      I also wish that someone could get a straight answer about how Harper Lee feels about all of this. Thanks for your comment! :)


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