How can it be possible to fairly review a novel that has been 55 years in the waiting? One that is viewed as a follow up to perhaps one of the most important works in American literature, in the timeless and widely read To Kill A Mockingbird?

Either way, Go Set A Watchman is never going to get a fair shake with critics and readers. It is too important a piece of literature, and connected to something too culturally, and personally, significant to people. Even the idea of how to read it is a tad confusing. Do we take this new novel as an add on to Mockingbird? Do we allow it to change the way we view the original text, or take them as two separate stories, connected by the author and the characters alone? Do the events of Watchman need to impact the way we see, and re-read, Mockingbird?

watchman2There is so much to say about this novel…it is a tough one to review, for so many reasons. There will be some mild spoilers in here, but nothing that hasn’t been printed in the myriad of other reviews that are already out for the novel.

  • there are many indications that this very much is an early draft by Harper Lee. There are edits that need to be made, in terms of having the stories of both books, work together perfectly, including a detail of the Tom Robinson trial that is different in Watchman.
  • While there are some parts of the book that don’t seem needed, Harper Lee still manages to provide some exceptional lines in the novel. She is able to craft certain things so perfectly, indicating her natural gift for writing. But there is work that could have been done on this novel, which is perhaps one of the reasons it went 55 years before being published.
  • It is pretty amazing that from this original text, which was written before Mockingbird, provided some editor with the idea that Lee should write about the characters as children, instead of as the adult version that Go Set A Watchman provides.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed Scout as an adult. She maintains many of the qualities that made her such a memorable character in the first place. She is not of her time, and intelligent beyond her years still. She has the same fire that she had when she was a child, and that makes her continue as an endearing character.
  • There are some surprises here, such as what happened to Jem. We find out very early in the novel that he is dead; he died suddenly and unexpectedly as too young a man. Part of the novel is Scout trying to come to terms with this fact, and her ability, or lack thereof, to move on past this.
  • Go Set A Watchman doesn’t really have a plot, in the way that Mockingbird did. The story is pretty simple, that Scout is coming back to Maycomb for a visit from her life in New York. There, she must deal with love, loss, and the new realizations about her father and her childhood. There isn’t really a centrally driving story line to put everything together, and have her come of age.
  • A lot of the dialogue, especially in the second half of the novel, becomes surprisingly political, and often reads like a debate, instead of characters having a discussion. While the points are intelligent and important to the novel, it is not Lee’s finest writing.
  • The novel provides added context to the original story. Knowing more about the characters that we grew up with, and loved, adds to what we know from the original. We get the rare opportunity here to see what happened to the kids that we cared so much about as we read about them so many years ago.

watchman4It’s time to talk about Atticus Finch. One of the greatest literary heroes ever written, he was the symbol for all that was good in the world, even if the world was not a good place. He was an example of morality, of kindness, and he did everything for his children so that they would grow up in the right way, to be good people.

Go Set A Watchman changes all of that. In this follow-up, we are provided with another view of Atticus, one that could dramatically change the way we perceive the man that so many readers saw as the ultimate father figure. There is another side to Atticus, and it is one that is very difficult to read. My greatest fear about picking up Watchman was that it would drastically change something, specifically related to Atticus. What if he wasn’t as good as we had originally thought he was? What if Lee has him die in the novel? What if this book ruins him as the epitome of goodness, and as the moral compass that we all loved so much?

Well, we see some different things about Atticus in this book. Not good things. Things that are tough to swallow, and things that are upsetting. For that reason, I will take Watchman as a separate entity from Mockingbird. Because I don’t want anything to change with how I view him. I see this as an original view of the man, not the one he would have actually ended up as, had Lee actually written this book as a sequel, instead of as the original jumping off point for her tale of Maycomb. Had she intended this as a sequel, and there is much debate as to the origins of this novel- was it the first copy, prior to Mockingbird, or was it a failed sequel- I feel that she would have kept Atticus as pure.

watchman3On the flip side, there is a reason behind the different view of Atticus. There is a reason for it, and it is to help Scout become the adult that she needs to be. In a way, she needs to be broken. Atticus himself states that, “I’ve killed you Scout. But I had to.” (or something similar to that). It is heart-breaking to read, but we know that there is a purpose for Atticus to be the way that he is, in order to help his beloved daughter, and last surviving child, to grow up.

Which really, is what it is all about. Is it impossible for somebody to be as good as Atticus was? Even if he has a darker side, does it change any of the lessons that he taught Scout as a precocious child? Is it possible to be everything to everyone, even if you aren’t perfect yourself? The answers provided in Go Set A Watchman are perhaps not the ones that we want to know. Not the answers that could have been left unanswered forever.

While some people will read this novel as a complete, and actual, sequel to Mockingbird. However, I take is as an important piece of context for the original story that will never be able to taint the genius, and beauty, of the book that we have read and re-read so many times. As a book on its own, it is not that strong. There are plenty of flaws in it, as a novel, but not enough to ruin the whole thing. It gives us the chance to know what Lee thought of her characters, and where she saw them going in life. For that reason, Watchman is an important, if not great, piece of literature. Of course we would want it to be perfect, because it is the long-anticipated and wondered about follow ups to one of the greatest books of all-time. It isn’t that, and it could never live up to the enormous expectations placed upon it.

For me, it is more a piece of interest than cold, hard facts about the characters we loved so much.

Especially Atticus.

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