Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Publisher: Harper Collins
By now there have been so many articles and blogs written about GSAW that I wonder if I can add anything new or of value – but I’m going to add my 2 cents anyway.
Like everyone else that loved “To Kill a Mockingbird”, I was thrilled to hear that a long lost Harper Lee manuscript was found. Yes, there were some questions about whether or not Harper Lee was actually on board with the publication, or if the elderly author was being manipulated, nevertheless, the book world was intrigued.
I jumped on the band wagon and immediately pre-ordered the book, and as soon as I heard the news that Reese Witherspoon was narrating, I pre-ordered the audio version as well. Then, as news started to trickle out in tiny bits, we waited.
WARNING – there will be some spoilers ahead.
From everything that I heard and read, my understanding of the “new” book was that it told the story of Scout, now an adult and using her full name of Jean Louise, going home to visit her family and that it would contain flashbacks of her childhood. It was explained that those flashbacks were considered more compelling, and that the original editor of GSAW asked Lee to pull those portions out of the book and to concentrate on that story. That’s how we got “To Kill a Mockingbird”, one of the most beloved and revered books of the past 55 years.
Now, before I begin talking about my take on GSAW, let me first mention that I listened to the audio, and will likely go back and read the book later. The audio was beautifully narrated by Reese Witherspoon, and even though there were some passages that I wanted to highlight so that I wouldn’t forget them, I was glad that I went with the audio version first.
So, here’s my two cents about the book, and about the firestorm that surrounded it prior to the launch.
The Friday before the book was set to be released, I woke up to the news that The Guardian had posted the first chapter of the book and audio online.
Then the first shoe dropped! Half way through the first chapter we learn that a major character from TKAM has died – and the world stopped breathing. People across the Internet were reacting to this news, and with the speed of wifi and Internet connections, the first spoiler was revealed.
It was not long after that initial first chapter release that the other shoe dropped. Headlines were popping up from just about every news source and blog – Atticus Finch is a racist! People were sad, angry, hurt, indignant, disgusted, and ….. you get the picture. Opinions were posted, and decisions not to read the book were made before anyone even really knew the contents of the book. It got quite a bit out of hand.
With all of this information swirling around my head, I was torn. And sad. What bothered me the most was that it was very much starting to look like this book was going to be maligned before it even hit the shelves. I didn’t want to see the historical, literary value of this long awaited book ruined. And I was pissed off. People were acting like their lives had been ruined; all their dreams shattered – because a literary character was flawed. This was getting a little nuts!
By the end of the weekend however, it looked like cooler heads prevailed, and the rhetoric was getting a little less frenzied. The book would be available to the world on Tuesday, July 14th, and the excitement was building again. I breathed a little sigh of relief.
I woke up Tuesday morning and received the alert that my audio version was available, and that the book would arrive in the mail that day. I couldn’t wait for the book, and since it was a work day, I downloaded the audio and started to listen. It’s not a long book, and I was finished within 2 days. The audio is about 7 hours long.
It will not go down as one of my favorites, but I enjoyed it. I may be in the minority here, but it wasn’t the revelation about Atticus that bothered me; it was Jean Louise herself. I found her pretty lackadaisical until she has her confrontation with her father. From that point on I thought I was going to see sassy Scout once again, but then the book kind of drops off and ends. For me, it was not a very satisfying ending. It could be that listening at work was a bit distracting, which is why I’ve mentioned that I will more thank likely read the book at a later date.
Now for the disappointment; the flashbacks of Scout, Jem and Dill that I was expecting were disappointing. There were so few of them, and only a very brief mention of the trial of Tom Robinson from TKAM. That was all. There was a flashback of Scout as a young teenager at a high school dance that I found uninteresting. I guess it was supposed to be funny and cute, but I found it dull.
Here’s what was missing – and I’m not trying to be critical here, we all know that this was a first draft that went through major revisions before it became Mockingbird, but I miss the way Harper Lee was able to draw us in from the very first sentence of TKAM:
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
From this first line you know that someone is going back to tell a story. It’s the adult Scout, and she has a voice that’s much more compelling than the Scout, or Jean Louise, from GSAW. Maybe it’s because TKAM is told by Jean Louise, and not about Jean Louise. Mockingbird is told in first person point of view, whereas Watchman is told in third person point of view. I think that makes a huge difference.
I also miss the innocent voice of Scout. In Mockingbird, it’s when Boo Radley is discovered hiding behind a door and Scout says “Hey Boo“; and when Scout confronts one of the men who threatens her father outside of the jailhouse, “Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one early morning, remember? We had a talk. I went and got my daddy to come out and thank you. I go to school with your boy. I go to school with Walter; he’s a nice boy. Tell him ‘hey’ for me, won’t you? …” To me that’s the heart of the story, and that’s what’s missing from “Go Set a Watchman”.
If you’d like to add your two cents, don’t be shy, leave a comment.
For those of you haven’t been following all of the news, I’m linking two articles that I found very insightful and interesting.
From Hadley Freeman (journalist at The Guardian)
From blogger Thomas Otto
And for more insight on “To Kill a Mockingbird” I highly recommend the following:
“Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird” by Mary McDonagh Murphy
“Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee” by Charles J. Shields