I read To Kill A Mockingbird when I was a young teenager – my sister studied it in school and I recall stealing it from her room so that I could consume it. I must admit that I really didn’t understand it probably as much as I could’ve, but it’s remained a wonderful story of the deep south.
When GSAW was published, in 2015, I was interested in it, but not enough to buy it at launch. It actually turned out to be three years until I borrowed it from the library and listened to the audiobook, narrated by Reese Witherspoon.
From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch–“Scout”–returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past–a journey that can be guided only by one’s conscience. Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor and effortless precision–a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to an American classic.
The marketing for this book said that it was a sequel to TKAM. But it’s not, really. It’s more like a companion novel. We see Scout Finch, now a grown woman of 26, returning to her native Maycomb, Alabama, and the bittersweet nature of her return.
Go Set A Watchman was the original novel that Lee submitted for publication. When it was accepted, Lee worked with her editor, picking out the parts of the novel that worked best (Scout’s childhood) and moulding them into the well-loved classic that is so well-known. Many years later, the original manuscript was found again, and published as a sequel.
Go Set A Watchman, though, is… well, it’s not good. It’s missing most of the charm and warmth of TKAM. It’s lacking the empathy that you feel with the characters of Maycomb. Mockingbird deals with many of the same issues as Watchman, dealing with racism and entrenched attitudes in the deep South, but Watchman is much more heavy handed. It’s just… it’s much less of a book.
Because it wasn’t written as a sequel, it doesn’t have that examination of characters that you would maybe see as you investigate how characters have grown and developed from where you met them first. But because Watchman was written first, the evolution is actually visible when you compare them, but it’s backwards. Jem, Scout, and Atticus are so much more in Mockingbird than they are in Watchman.
Reading this book, it’s clear to see why Mockingbird was sculpted out of the bones of this story. It’s something much lesser than what it eventually became. Watchman is largely a demonstration of the power of a good editor, and what the vital role they play is. Disappointing alone, it should be read as an insight into the development of the story and how crucial the role the publisher plays was then, and still is now.
A Note: I was away last week at a wedding, and didn’t get a chance to write a Thursday post. Then yesterday I was away again at a conference, and again didn’t get a chance. Hence why I’m posting on a Wednesday. Normal posting will resume next week… probably.