To be honest, when I heard that a new Harper Lee novel was coming out, I was not euphoric. I of course read To Kill A Mockingbird as a child and loved it, and who could not love the movie? But to me, at least. To Kill A Mockingbird is now such an icon that the idea of Harper Lee writing <another> novel just seemed weird. I figured I would read it eventually, but I was not frothing at the mouth.
Then all of the spoilers and reviews started coming out, and overwhelmingly the news seemed bad. The resounding cry seemed to be, “How could she do that to Atticus?” I tried to avoid the spoilers and read these things through the spaces in my fingers that were covering my eyes. I decided I had better speed things up and read the book myself so I could formulate my own opinion and then see what all of the hubub was about.
Generally, there seem to be two sticky wickets about the book, as it turns out. The first is the provenance of the book. Did Lee really write this before To Kill A Mockingbird? As a New Yorker article pointed out, that doesn’t make much sense unless she had a really really good idea of how she was going to present Atticus. I read the book assuming that it was meant to be a sequel, and approaching it that way, it worked very well. But I suppose if you re in the publishing business, you want to know how an author and publisher created such a splash when the basic facts, like when the book was written, are quite hazy.
The other issue is, of course, the presentation of Atticus, perhaps one of the most beloved male characters of the 20th century. When you watch Gregory Peck play Atticus, you have that sensation that you wish this guy could be your dad and the dad to all of your friends. He is a hero, warm and strong, smart and funny, imposing and gentle. For American readers, one might argue that the character of Atticus Finch is a bit on the sacred side.
I don’t want to spoil the book for you but let’s just say that Lee brings Atticus down to earth in Go Set A Watchman as he is seen through the eyes of Scout. It’s uncomfortable because unless you are extremely fortunate, all of us have watched our idols get torn down at one point or another. We all have that person who seems flawless in our eyes, and realizing that they are just another human, just like us, is like realizing that you just built a mansion right over a sinkhole. Everything you have relied on must now be questioned, and indeed, that is what Scout experiences.
I think Lee’s handling of this transition is a bit rough. Lee uses the character of Uncle Jack to explain the psychological ramifications of what Scout has gone through, and to me it seemed a bit clumsy. However, the power of the tale remained strong.
Reading Go Set A Watchman this summer against the backdrop of all of the racial tensions that has reared its ugly head was an interesting experience. Nowhere in the book does Lee mention the Confederate flag, and yet the bigotry that we have been dealing with in the US appears against the quaint background of a fairly isolated and charming Southern town. People who you thought were just normal (whatever that means) good people turn out to have views about race that are ignorant, antiquated, racist, bigoted, and otherwise ugly. But you know what? That is how life is.
I have heard a lot of stories lately about people saying things to African American friends of mine that you would not believe, including virtually hedging on using the phrase “You people.” These people seem decent, otherwise, but these little nibbles at their laminated exterior reveal an underbelly of race hatred that most people haven’t begun to accept within themselves yet.
As for the reading experience itself, it is hard to separate the writing from Lee’s gestalt. You give her a lot of leeway because you know she is an amazing writer. After all, she wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. However, if try to separate the book from the legend, as it were, I find that it was not a book that would really stick with me. The character maneuverings are interesting because we all know Scout and Atticus (which is another point the New Yorker review made). But in and of itself, I thought it was rather clunky. The flashbacks seemed like a “hammer into the head” way of contrasting the new present with the nostalgically held past. I wanted to say, “I get it. She’s nostalgic but is facing a new and darker reality now.”
I also found the ending rather abrupt and unsatisfactory. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you’ve read it, or once you’ve read it, let me know what you think.
Overall, I guess I would recommend reading this book if you are into literature and are curious what all of the noise is about like I was. But as a book itself, I did not find it as wonderful as I had hoped.
Let’s hear from you now.