Yesterday, the world of literature lost one of its giants, as Harper Lee passed away quietly in her small town of Monroeville, Alabama.
Lee is most famous for her seminal novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the most read books on the planet, and a seeming right of passage for teenagers to read at some point in high school. The novel became more than a book for so many people, and the adventures of Scout and Atticus, growing up in the small, racist town of Maycomb, has become an integral part of the American fabric. It is a novel that exposed us to injustice, and justice, and fairness, and compassion, something that too few books have been able to do for us over the course of our lives. It is impossibly memorable to the millions who have turned its pages again and again.
While Harper Lee truly only wrote the one novel (despite the recent publication of Go Set A Watchman), she managed to change the way we look not only at books, but at ourselves. To Kill A Mockingbird is a timeless classic, and it will endure for the ages.
Being semi-reclusive over her life, and never writing again made Lee more of a legend, and had us respecting her for knowing that she would not be able to top her original work, and not chase dollar signs just by slapping her name on just about anything.
For me, Mockingbird changed the way I looked at books. No longer were they just means of escape; I knew that they could be so much more. They could make me think, and push me, and make me love characters, even decades after reading it for the first time.
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?
There 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.
It’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.
On 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.
55 years after one of the greatest American literary works, To Kill A Mockingbird, was published. In those 55 years, Mockingbird has become one of the most beloved books ever, and one of the most read. It is one of those amazing works, where it transcends generations, and becomes a novel that people will go back to time and again, to relive the adventures of Scout Finch, as she makes her way through the confusing world created for her in Maycomb.
For many people, their exposure to Mockingbird came to them in junior high or high school English class, where they were required to read the book for the first time. And maybe they liked it right off the bat. Maybe they didn’t. Part of the magic of the novel is that it is one that is forever in the back of our minds.
We know Scout, and we watched her grow up during the Tom Robinson trial. We know Boo Radley, the mysterious neighbor who taught us more about understanding and judgement than we may even choose to acknowledge. And we know and love Atticus Finch, the ultimate literary father figure, to the point where his film character is considered to be one of the great film heroes of all time. We read the book, and re-read it, and wanted Atticus to be a part of our lives somehow, to have a man of that kind of honour to be our guides in the world.
To Kill A Mockingbird is special, without any doubt.
It is perfect, and untouched, in a way. The author, Harper Lee, never published another novel in her life. Mockingbird was the height of her career, and she has had a good life because of it. The characters of Maycomb are always there for us, on our book shelves, where our tattered copy of the novel sits, always ready for another adventure, each time we decide to pick it up.
This past week, it was announced that Harper Lee would be publishing a new book.
To one of the greatest novels of all time.
This is massive news.
And it is scary news.
It was announced that the manuscript for Lee’s first novel (which she actually wrote before Mockingbird) has been rediscovered, and will be published in July of 2015. The title of the book is Go Set A Watchman, and it takes place 20 years after the events of Mockingbird. Scout, now an adult, returns to Maycomb to reunite with her father, and deal with her childhood in the small southern town, and the events that were so paramount to her development as a person.
It is interesting that Watchman was written before Mockingbird. The publisher at the time was taken with the flashbacks to Scout’s youth, and encouraged the young author Lee to write an entire novel on Scout’s time as a child. This, of course, became To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee herself has noted that she was a young writer at the time, but that Watchman is a “pretty decent effort.” We can only hope.
There are reasons to be scared of this novel coming out. It is taking us back to characters that we love so much, and we will crack the pages of the new novel hoping that everything is going to work out alright for them, and that the original book will not be ruined by the new one. At the same time, knowing that it was written prior to the original book, we can take solace in the fact that Lee has not been trying, and failing, at writing a sequel for all of these years, decades, and finally has come up with something that she feels satisfied with. Knowing that she had already created an adult version of Scout gives me relief, because then the events of Mockingbird will serve to develop that character that was already written.
There is the potential for magic with Go Set A Watchman. We will get to see the character that we loved all grown up, as she was originally meant to be seen.
So what will have become of Scout? Will she have followed in her father’s footsteps and taken to law in order to make the world a better place? Will she have taken the lessons taught to her by Atticus and become a truly great person? What is her relationship with Atticus like, now that she is an adult?
There are a ton of questions, and in a few short months, there will be answers.
One thing that I have considered, with a bit of horror, is what is going to happen with Atticus? He was a bit older for a father of a young girl. Is he going to die in this novel? Even thinking about that is scary. I guess we will have to wait and see.
There is no question that we can already pencil in Go Set A Watchman as the year’s best selling book, and rightfully so. Almost immediately after the announcement of the publication, it was launched into a Top 10 selling book, based on pre-orders alone.
The release of this book is more than a long-awaited sequel, or even a long-awaited book from a beloved writer. It is an event of great cultural significance.
Naturally, there is division in readers on what to expect for the book. It can be something great. Or it is something average. It was, after all, never published in the first place. Or it could be something that we read, just because of Mockingbird, but it will be nothing special in itself.
All I have to say is…who cares?
Harper Lee is publishing a new book, and while it will probably never live up to the astronomical success of her first novel, it will be something that we will be able to cherish (hopefully) for as long as we have loved Mockingbird.
My pre-order has been in since the moment I heard the news.