I hate spoilers. But unless you've avoided television and the Internet, you know there’s controversy surrounding Go Set a Watchman. There's debate over whether Harper Lee ever intended anyone besides a select few readers to see the manuscript, and whether it was truly a first draft of what later became To Kill a Mockingbird. And then there’s the uproar over the racism displayed by America’s beloved character, Atticus Finch.
Perhaps what bothers us the most is not that Atticus Finch’s image is tarnished, but that Harper Lee portrayed racism in America from an uncannily accurate angle, and with a helpless frustration.
Without giving away more than the media already has, I gave the book 3 out of 5 stars and recommend it to readers who are interested in an intellectual discussion. If you’re looking for a beach read or something with rainbows and puppies, this isn’t the book for you (but you already knew that).
Keep two things in mind: One, the book was published without any editorial input from Harper Lee and appears to be more of a draft of a manuscript than a final edition of a book (more on this later). Two, let go of any expectations that the book will be anything like To Kill a Mockingbird. While the major players are still there, only their names seem to remain the same (although Scout has mostly morphed into “Jean Louise”). So much for nostalgia.
For me, the main theme wasn’t racism. Yes, that was a big part of the book, and a big shock to the system of a lot of readers -- myself included. However, I disagree with those who thought it was only about racism. I thought it was also about how we see our parents and hometowns one way when we’re children, and how that vision changes when we grow up, leave home, and go home again. But can you really go home again?
As John Steinbeck said in Travels with Charley: “You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”
I wish Harper Lee was able to tell her side of the story, that she could have worked with editors to shape Go Set a Watchman into the book it should have been -- if that was her wish. As an editor, there were many places where I wanted to pick up the red pen and make notes in the margins. But for all its faults, there are parts where Harper Lee’s voice shines through. I’m glad I read it. I wish I had a book club to discuss it with because there are so many threads of conversations I could pick up from the book.
I suggest you read the book (and read the entire book, don’t stop when you get to the pivotal scene -- you’ll know it when you read it). If you’re the type who doesn’t want the publisher to benefit from book sales any more than it already has, get the book from the library.
Have you already read the book? What did you think?