GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

This was a tough one for me—to read and, now, to write about. Like it is for countless others, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has always been THE BOOK for me. I fell in love with it immediately as a young girl; it taught me lessons about integrity and acceptance but also about writing. I was born a writer, and from the moment I read it, TKM stood on the alter under, “Your Goal. Emulate this.” I wanted to move people the way Lee moved me.

When I heard that Lee finally had a second book, Go Set a Watchman, coming out, I was ecstatic. Thrilled. For about thirty seconds.

Then the realization hit that my literary hero might, and probably would, be taken down a notch. Because how could a draft manuscript of the story that served as the first step toward TKM be as good or better than TKM itself?

It wasn’t. This is no surprise to many readers by now. The story is a bit scattered and undeveloped. Though sparks of the genius are visible in GSaW, if you never read or loved TKM, this is not the book for you.

But for those who have, GSaW is worth reading for two reasons.

First, it’s an opportunity to observe, even through this small window, the development of a literary classic (TKM). Go Set a Watchman (I honestly think she has the best titles ever) is essentially the shitty first draft (to use Anne Lamott’s phrase) of TKM. It’s the story Lee first wrote; the one her editor used to send her back to the drawing board. It’s interesting to see what choices Lee made as she developed one novel from the other.

Second, for readers who loved TKM, it’s a particularly unique opportunity to live in the shoes of the main character, Jean Louise Finch, and experience her happiness and disappointments alongside her, especially if you read TKM as a young person. For decades, her father, Atticus, has served as a literary-bordering on-cultural influence. The ultimate father. The ultimate humanitarian. Adored by readers as he was adored by his fictional daughter.

So, oh the heartbreak when we, now all grown up, find out that Atticus is simply human—flawed and, yes, racist. Unsurprisingly, I was angry, annoyed, sad, and frustrated as I read. Can’t just one hero remain a hero? Why, oh why, does Atticus have to be sacrificed?

Then the brilliance of the experience of reading two books about the same family, and reading them over the period of my—and Jean Louise’s—lifetime from a 6th grader who had heroes aplenty to an adult who understands better the complexities of life and living, began to set in. And the wonderful questions the book begets: Is Atticus still a hero? Can you be racist and still be a hero, even if just to your own daughter? What do time and place have to do with it? If justice trumps race in Atticus’ mind, is he still a hero for defending Tom Robinson? And many, many more…

Not many—not firemen or football players or our own fathers—can live up to the pedestals we place them on. And no one is untainted, not even Atticus Finch. Jean Louise and I are licking our wounds, but we’re all the better for it.

 

Jessica Null Vealitzek is a writer near Chicago. Her debut novel, The Rooms Are Filled, was published by She Writes Press in April 2014. She can be found online at her web site, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

 

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