I’m just going to be the odd man out that defends this book as totally worth reading.
Fact: Go Set a Watchman was never intended to be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman was written first, and Lee’s publisher suggested that the back story would be a more viable read.
Fact: The Atticus of Watchman is not the same as the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. You could say he changed (for the worse?) with age and time, but it makes more sense to acknowledge that Watchman Atticus wasn’t the same man at all. He’s a rewrite, a different story, based on the assumption that Watchman would never be published.
Fact: The plot isn’t primarily about race, and if you start reading it thinking it’s all about race, it’ll infuriate you. Though race is a key element, the plot (and yes, I will argue there is indeed a plot, though many reviewers have rather vehemently said otherwise) is about Scout returning home after years on her own and dealing with the suffocating feeling that she never really knew the people she loved and trusted.
Fact: For some reason, I couldn’t put this book down. I read it through in one day.
I know that many readers who read Watchman walked away disappointed (inevitable for a sequel) and disgusted (inevitable in light of an honorable protagonist who looks at segregation as anything but clear-cut). In it, Atticus–a character we’ve long loved and respected–plays down the KKK and holds some fairly segregationalist views.
But this is a different Atticus. And though today’s America tends to make everything all about race and injustice, the story isn’t about race or injustice. It’s about a little girl who idolizes her father and thinks at least somewhat highly of most residents of her hometown. And when she returns as an adult, it all looks heartbreakingly different.
You can argue that’s not enough of a plot to spin a novel, and Lee’s publisher would have agreed–at least the first time around. That’s why we have Mockingbird. But novels have been spun on far less.
For what it’s worth, I loved seeing the way Lee made the story evolve. It’s a look into an author’s mind. What would we find if we could go back and read the stories Dickens discarded? We might not see the same Dickens we’ve been studying for years, but there might be a controversial gem in there somewhere that gives insight into the way a great writer thought.
And that’s what Watchman is–a controversial, insight-giving gem. Of course, most people don’t pick up a novel for its academic insight. And on its own, Watchman would never have been a bestseller. If it had been published in 1960, it would have faded into oblivion by now. As a standalone novel, it’s in dire need of a good editor. It will never attain classic status in the mainstream literary canon.
But Watchman strays from contemporary norms and controversies and deals instead with the struggle of moral betrayal and growing up as a very real, heartbreaking issue. Today’s audience sees those issues as worthy only of an eye-roll or addendum, not a novel. Watchman looks at race relations as a complex issue, with insight that goes deeper than the oversimplified everyone-was-just-unenlightened attitude we tend to cop about the South today.
We’d do well to look past the controversy (and our own assumptions) and into the human truth of this story.
This one is going to fall firmly into the 2015 reading list category as “Book with Bad Reviews,” but I certainly don’t regret the few hours I spent on it.