Out of all the books published in 2015 thus far, I feel like, hands down, this one has generated the most hub-bubb amongst readers, both avid and less so.
The controversy around this novel comes from whether this long-lost manuscript can be considered a new novel by Harper Lee, or whether it is simply an interesting read to see what the story of To Kill a Mockingbird started out as.
Some people took the release quite well and just accepted the book for what it was; others are not taking it so well. For instance, as reported yesterday by The Guardian, the bookstore Brilliant Books in Michigan is offering refunds to its customers who purchased Go Set a Watchman, because they feel the book should not have been marketed as a new novel, bur rather as a source of insight into Harper Lee’s development as a writer, and the development of the story of TKAM. Click here if you would like to read The Guardian‘s full article.
This novel was written in the 1950s, and is what can be called the first draft of TKAM. Throughout this book, there are countless flashbacks to Scout’s childhood in Maycomb, and her editor advised her to focus on these rather than on Scout’s adult self. And so TKAM was born with the youthful Scout as narrator.
This novel takes place in Maycomb County, Alabama with a 26-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returning from New York to visit her aging father, Atticus. Many of the TKAM characters are in this book, including Henry Clinton and Calpurnia, though I will say that one of the major characters is dead early on, which upset me some, but I can’t really be mad since this character was dead in this version before he/she was alive in TKAM. The plot of this novel deals with the shock and anger that overcomes Scout when she learns of her father’s racist views toward Negroes. For many readers, I think this is what shocked them the most: reading that the heroic Atticus Finch who defended an African-American man in a rape case in TKAM could actually be a bigot.
Despite various responses to the new novel, Go Set a Watchman has been a number one bestseller since its release, and I think it deserves it. Going in, I knew that this book was not meant to be a sequel or anything like that, so I read it pretending like TKAM didn’t exist.
And now for a few factual tidbits:
Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.
What I Loved Most: From reading this book long after TKAM, I found that the characters are almost richer and have more depth. Rarely do readers have a chance to get to know characters from such widespread ages, but with more than 20 years between Scout in TKAM and Jean Louise in GSAW, it is incredible to see how the youthful Scout developed from her older counterpart, and how her flashbacks into childhood were edited to become Scout’s account of how things happened.
What I Loved Least: Maybe it was just me, but I noticed a few weird grammatical errors and typos and such. I know that this is an early draft, and is not meant to be a polished novel, but even drafts are edited so things like this don’t slip in.
As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.
She went around the car, and as she slipped under the steering wheel, this time she was careful not to bump her head.
Final Thoughts: If you take away nothing else from this post, please remember that if you are going to read this book, read it for what it is, not for what it isn’t. If you start the first page thinking that it won’t be as good because it’s not TKAM, you will be right. It won’t be TKAM and it’s not supposed to be. It is just a super interesting way to see how the story developed, where Harper Lee made changes, etc. If you read it with that in mind, it is actually a very well-told story that still has a lot of powerful messages about racism in the South in it.
Next up is The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe for a novel with only words on the cover!!!