Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee and so much controversy

I’m quite conflicted with this book, all the controversy over it’s publication and ‘finding’ leaves me feeling mildly uncomfortable. Selling this as the ‘sequel’ to To Kill a Mockingbird is false, while it is set years later, the key case of TKAM has its result changed in Go Set a Watchman, so it can hardly be called a sequel. And more importantly, this was written before TKAM. Really what we’ve been given is the initial draft concept for Harper Lee, which eventually came to be the mega classic TKAM. And then there’s the question of whether Harper Lee actually authorised this being released, and if she was competent enough to do so, with conflicting accounts from ‘friends’, so it has left me feeling odd, and is partially why I have waited as long as this to actually read it (another part is that I wanted it from the library, and it was a very popular book). Setting the controversy aside what did I think of the book?I liked it, there’s no question about that, and I didn’t find myself resonating with the negative reviews I was reading on Goodreads (of which there are a number). It’s by no means as good as TKAM, it is different, and deals more with Scout trying to come to terms with her change in beliefs and her idolisation of Atticus, who doesn’t seem to be the equality hero we thought. The flashbacks to her childhood were really enjoyable, which makes me completely understand the publisher’s suggestion of doing a book where Scout and co are children, which became TKAM.

What about Atticus Finch now appearing to be a racist, bigot? Well, I certainly don’t feel the same hero shattering feels that some people are ranting about, because I can process that this was the draft of the story, this isn’t the sequel, so this Atticus isn’t the same Atticus in TKAM who we were all inspired by. Sure it is disheartening to see this character talk as he does, but, he is after all just a character. At the same time, I can actually see the TKAM Atticus in this GSAW Atticus, I could see him doing and saying what he says in this book. It’s not inconceivable to me.

I think we resonant strongly with Scout, whose disgust at seeing Atticus even associate with the terrible things being said by some about African Americans. So as readers we have to have our disillusionment with Atticus shattered, and ‘become our own person’ just like Scout does.

There were times when I was confused, unsure if that was poor editing, the linguistic/cultural differences between now and then (and me, a non-American, who has only limited knowledge, and minimal real understanding of these issues), or if it was intentional. Like Dr Finch’s lengthy, rambly talks with Scout left me unsure of what he was saying. In these instances, I think Scout felt similar, so it seemed to be intentional. But it probably could have been done better (and of course, in TKAM it is done better, so I don’t know how much of a criticism this all really is).

So what we are given is a minimally edited draft of TKAM, which was hyped up to the extreme. I think that is the disappointing aspect of the story. Not the content, but the context. I’m quite glad that this was published, it has academic significance, and gives us a rare insight into the workings of Harper and see the beginnings of her genius. This is not her second book, but her #0.5, and should be read in such a light. I’m glad I read it because it was good, and thought-provoking, it’s a pity the circumstances it has come out in, but will be an important text, not to the same scale as TKAM, but as an additional text to add greater context and understanding to the original.

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