Last night, I sat down and read Go Set a Watchman.
The build up to Harper Lee's new book, as you know, has been enormous. The beloved author had notoriously told interviewers she'd never publish again, and yet, here she is, at 89 years of age, publishing a first draft of the book that came before Mockingbird, a book she has described as the "parent" to the American classic.
I commented on my Instagram last week how interesting I thought the release day for Go Set a Watchman would be: the publication itself rife with controversy, plus the New York Times book review informing all of us that Atticus -- our dear, beloved Atticus -- had, in his old age, become a racial bigot. It all seemed a bit too much to ask of readers, particularly Southern ones to whom the book has meant so much. No one likes their heroes knocked off their pedestals, after all.
But The Bookshelf sold 40 copies of Go Set a Watchman the first day, and readers still seemed eager or, at the very least, intrigued. All week long, customers asked me if I'd read it, if I intended to read it, and the truth is, I was hesitant. Atticus, Scout, and Jem are as dear to me as family, and -- if I weren't currently a bookstore owner -- I may have put this one off a bit, waited for the hype and the controversy to die down.
I am, however, a bookseller. And reading the book is my job. So after a hectic week filled with Harper Lee-inspired events and extroverted days, I curled up in my grandpa's big blue arm chair, and I read the entire thing in three hours flat.
A full discussion of the book would requite spoilers, some of which I've included below, but for those of you who desire to remain spoiler free, here is my brief review: Read this book. It is as flawed as you've imagined, but it is important, particularly if you -- like me -- are a Southern reader. (Though even if you're not, I suspect it has the power to resonate just the same.)
Before last week's New York Times review, my biggest concern was Lee's writing wouldn't be up to par with her previous work; I was afraid all of those Truman Capote rumors might be fueled further. I hesitated to associate this new book with the mind of a literary genius.
I had nothing to fear.
The voice of Go Set a Watchman is so clearly Harper Lee's. I sat in that big blue recliner for three hours laughing, then crying over its goodness. It's not perfect, mind you -- in some places, the novel rambles, falls flat. It's a draft, and readers seeking perfection won't find it here. Instead, I suspect, like me, you'll find brilliance in its place. The book is quintessentially Southern, filled with details only a born-and-raised Southerner would know. The dialect is pure, the church scenes a complete delight. Written over 50 years ago, the book is also miraculously timely, as if Lee knew we might need a book for such a time as this.
And Scout? She's all I hoped she would be. Sure, she's now called Jean Louise, but every woman knows the girl inside never really dies, and Scout shines through at all the right moments. She is witty and cutting, and her struggle to come home feels so real and true. I'm not sure how anyone could read it and not feel some familiarity with how Scout grapples with adulthood, how she stumbles in her quest to return home.
There is Atticus, too, and it's true: His words disappoint. But they're also incredibly realistic, and Jean Louise feels as betrayed as we all do, and the book serves as a powerful reminder that humans -- fictional or not -- aren't meant for the pedestals we put them on. The scenes between Scout and Atticus are some of the finest, truest parts of the novel, and if you're like me, you'll turn the final page, the Atticus you know and love still intact, but more nuanced than before.
Atticus, a racist? Yes, in part. A flawed human being? In full. It's genius, because it's true.
Go Set a Watchman felt more familiar to me than Mockingbird; Harper Lee was right -- of course -- to call it the parent to her beloved work. That's exactly, exactly, what it feels like. Scout's grown-up, and we are, too. We needed this book. I'd like to think she knew we did.
A few spoiler-filled observations are below; please don't read these unless you've read the book first (or don't intend to read it at all!). I truly believe you'll enjoy Go Set a Watchman more if you read it with an open mind. The more information you have, the less you'll be surprised by the novel's flawed beauty.
- If online articles and news reports are to be believed, an editor read this draft of Go Set a Watchman and told Harper Lee her flashbacks to Jean Louise's childhood were the best parts. "Make novel out of those," we're told she said. If those rumors or reports are true, I'd certainly understand why. Some of the best parts of Go Set a Watchman are still those with Jem, Scout, and Dill; they're hidden gems in the novel, and the editor is almost as genius as Harper Lee for mining them and turning them to gold.
- The novel's weakest parts are some rambling dialog and Jean Louise's love interest, Hank, who -- in my opinion -- simply isn't interesting enough for independent, complicated Scout.
- Atticus's racially-tinged dialogue doesn't appear until the back-half of the novel, and although it's incredibly important both for our current history and for a full understanding of his character, some of the novel's best parts are well before we learn about Atticus' failings. There's an entire chapter devoted to Jean Louise's return to her Methodist church that had me laughing out loud.
- Jem only appears in flashbacks -- the first chapter tells us he "dropped dead in his tracks" at the age of 30 -- and while this realization is heartbreaking, it fits his character, somehow. I was saddened by it, but for some reason, not surprised.
- Yes, Atticus is a racist -- or at least has some racist tendencies -- but his words are both nuanced and familiar if you've been raised in the South. He and Scout discuss politics -- they're both conservative states rightists -- and we see a difference between two generations that feels eerily modern. Perhaps surprisingly, Atticus hasn't been ruined for me. He is still a hero of literature, the quintessential gentleman, but now he is flawed, and I think, somehow, that makes him better (or, at the very least, more real). If you're a Southerner, this book is perhaps more for you than it is for anyone else. It may make you uncomfortable, but sometimes that's the best way to learn.