Go Set A Watchman

Author: Harper Lee

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2015

I read it: August 2015

gsaw

After reading the C grade from The A.V. Club and the D+ from EW, I approached this book with great reluctance. Thankfully it was shorter than expected. The book both confirmed my general low expectations and also gave lie to some over-discussed plot points.

The book is only a draft. But a draft of what? All signs point to it being the precursor to To Kill A Mockingbird, which makes the most sense. It doesn’t work as a sequel—I’m pretty sure there are entire passages from the beginning of Part 2 that were placed into TKAM instead.  It also plays fast and loose with the fact that Jem is dead. On the other hand, a sequel is exactly what it could have been. All the pieces are in place, and with a far heavier editing hand it may have come into focus.

But the editing is pretty nonexistent. There are serious POV issues, with the flow switching from one character to the next midstream. On top of that, it switches from third person to first person within the same paragraph. The characters rattle off a host of literary and historical references without enough context or explanation. Huge chunks are just histories of the county and its people, instead of Jean Louise and her family specifically. These are more reasons why the book doesn’t work on its own merits—its only relevance is in our real world context of treating it as a museum specimen.

The story has basically two main arcs for Jean Louise: she wrestles with her heart about whether or not to marry Henry, and she wrestles with the frustrations of her town not being up to speed on race relations. The second arc comes down to her relationship with Atticus. And here is where the overblown article headlines had deceived me: Atticus has not fallen from savior to scoundrel between the two books. You could make the case that this is what the narrative intends for Jean Louise to think has happened (again, only if viewed as an actual sequel, which it fails at), but Atticus has simply entered a gray area. He’s an aging guy coming to terms with radical change around him. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also interesting and honest.

I’d go so far as to say the most infuriating part is the build at the end where Jean Louise repeatedly loses it. Perhaps this rang true for some readers, but it seemed too much for me. Maybe a teenager or twenty-year-old could harbor such shock and rage, but the character at 26? Really? She even commits a reductio ad Hitlerum during an argument. It’s pretty out there. The other reason it falls flat is our history with TKAM itself. This book has spawned the philosophy of asking, “What would Atticus do?” In GSAW, that phrase is actually used. It’s interesting terrain, but belongs either in a better book or left only to our public reading consciousness.

Also, the most shocking action wasn’t the racism stuff, it was when Uncle Jack hit Jean Louise in the face—twice!—because she was so upset. That this happens with so little comment is jarring to a modern reader. Especially when the narrative bends over backwards to cast Jean Louise as the Young Super Progessive.

Using phrases like “the narrative” instead of “the author” in this review brings us back to the central issue. To put it in the parlance of assessing our modern glut of pop culture: does this book earn its existence in any way? It does not. That’s not to say it’s thoroughly terrible—there’s potential here. I think it could work in a U.S. history or rhetoric class. The conversations about race, when placed into the context of how people in certain decades (which year did this take place, by the way? does it ever say?) thought and talked and acted, could be illuminating. Put the storytelling issues aside and there’s a lot you could do with the text.

Most people suspected this book would falter under the weight of Mockingbird, and they were right. The bright spot is the presumption about where this book came from: that someone, an editor maybe, read this and then convinced Lee to recraft her story. What she turned out was a brilliant, focused, tangible world that was less pedantic and more lasting. Isn’t this the ideal scenario for any book? That an author toiled away at characters and ideas, then was asked to abandon most of it so she could redirect it into something even better that she hadn’t glimpsed before?

I remember a book club when someone mentioned Harper Lee as an example of a person who had a single blazing story to tell. GSAW makes the claim hold up. We got the better story decades ago. We got the only story then. And I have no sympathy for people who worry that GSAW somehow diminishes TKAM. That’s the mindset people use when they say a movie or show has ruined a book for them. How is that possible? It’s just an extension, a different take. Don’t fret about the central texts you love. They are called timeless for a reason.

P.S. I can’t resist including a note about Jean Louise referencing the poem about “Childe Roland to the dark tower came.” Too cool! It might be the first time I’ve ever heard someone use that outside of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. It was a strange but welcome inclusion.

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2 thoughts on “Go Set A Watchman

  1. I agree that the slaps from her uncle were jarring and probably had a different effect than intended. The barrage of historical references were overwhelming–made me wonder if that was a ploy to make me feel like an outsider or “northerner.” To further make the point that I could not understand the intricacies of culture. I wish you had enjoyed the book as much as I did, but I appreciate your honest review

    • Thanks very much for reading and commenting! While it’s true I found the book sorely lacking, I still had a good time reading it. The book world conversation alone was enough to keep my interest up and the pages turning.

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