For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman: let him declare what he seeth (Isaiah 21:6, KJV)
Last week, I stood in my favorite bookstore listening to a customer chat with the man behind the counter. The customer said, “I’m lukewarm about it right now. I’m going to keep reading and wait to see what everyone says about it before I make up my mind.”
The clerk didn’t respond immediately but then said, “Yeah, we’ve been disappointed with the number of people who have called in to cancel their special order because of the bad reviews.”
They were speaking, of course, about Go Set a Watchman.
To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book of all time. So when I heard a “new” Harper Lee book would be coming out, I was beyond thrilled. The news quickly soured, tempering my unbridled joy. But I knew I would buy and read the book.
The negative reviews started coming. I skimmed one and then tried to avoid others. Chapter one came out early as a digital release. I ignored it. I wanted to hold the book in my hands, to read its words there first, and—unlike the bookstore customer—make up my own mind before reading any reviews.
I’m going out on what may be a lonely limb to say I enjoyed Go Set a Watchman. Not in the raving, life-changing way I devoured To Kill a Mockingbird. Not without choking through the excessive use of the n-word. Not without wishing for an editor at points. Not without understanding why reviewers might be harsh.
However, there was so much that resonated with me in these 278 pages that I refuse to join the naysayers. It feels too soon for me to fully articulate my thoughts on the book, but I wanted to set down some thoughts now before they get tangled up with the reviews and opinions of others that I can only avoid for so long. (Caution: spoiler alerts ahead)
In Mockingbird Scout had a father she adored, one who was the best kind of man we can hope for in this world. Lee made us all fall in love with Atticus, and then wonderful Gregory Peck cemented our devotion with his excellent portrayal in the movie.
Lee made us fall in love with Scout’s older brother Jem, too. He protected and loved her, and I can never read the scene of Scout in the ham costume walking home that night without imagining my big brother and me in that scene.
Perhaps my emotional connection with Mockingbird‘s Scout and my respect for Atticus prepared me so much more to experience Scout’s nausea and dizziness and utter despair in Watchman, to understand her world was dropping out from under her as she realizes Atticus is far different from and more complex than her childhood view of him. No one likes to lose a hero because of an ugly truth, and perhaps that’s part of the emotion driving the poor reviews.
Atticus had been Scout’s moral compass, as my father was for me. Jem was Scout’s devoted big brother—fighting and playing with her, and standing up for her—as my brother was for me.
Can any of us grow up without ever changing or deepening our understanding of our parents’ and siblings’ character? While it’s easy to love Mockingbird‘s Atticus, the version we discover in Watchman is harder to love, and yet he is probably more real. Is it as hard to see our beloved fictional fathers fall as real ones? Will we be able to reread Mockingbird with the same unfailing love for Atticus as before? Perhaps not, even though Mockingbird‘s version of Atticus is the one we can be completely sure Harper Lee meant for us to know.
I’m grateful that, even with Atticus’ troubling character in Watchman, Lee introduced me to another Finch man to love and admire: Scout’s uncle Jack. When she was rewriting Watchman into Mockingbird, it’s as though she took the best parts of Dr. Finch’s character and put them into a new, better Atticus.
As Uncle Jack calms and reasons with Scout, he calms and reasons with me, too. He also delivers some of my favorite lines of the book, especially when Scout questions her ability to ever live in the South again. He tells her, “the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong.” This is true not only of Southern friends, but Californian friends, Pennsylvanian friends and friends in any region of this country. Being wrong is not uniquely Southern, no matter what the rest of you may like to believe.
As a writer, I’ve been fascinated with the ways Lee changed the Finches’ story when she stepped back from Watchman to create To Kill a Mockingbird. Reading Watchman has made me admire Lee even more. She was willing to let go of the narratives she had created for Atticus and Calpurnia and Jem and Scout. She was willing to allow Scout to become a naive child again (no easy task), experiencing her family and friends in a way the adult Scout might easily forget. In both books, Lee ably captures the restlessness of racial divide. And she shines a piercing light of hope and love into dark corners of both books, albeit in very different ways.
Go Set a Watchman begins with Scout riding a train toward Maycomb, toward home. I finished the book on a plane ride back from a visit home. Somewhere in all of that—the journey, the longing for home that no longer exists the way it did, the learning more of the character of friends and family—I came to understand the beauty in this book. I hope you’ll read it for yourself and make up your own mind about what you think of it, regardless of what I’ve said or what anyone else says. If you’ve canceled your special order, uncancel it. The book deserves—even more, Harper Lee deserves—at least that little bit of effort from all of us who have long desired another chapter from her skilled hands.
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