When you look at lists of books which are most influential in people’s lives, invariably you will see at the top, or near it, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, her first and until recently her only published novel. So the publishing world was agog when locked away in a safe was another novel written by this literary legend.
There have been so many stories of how this novel came to light, its discovery became almost more important story than the novel itself. You have no doubt read much of the hype and I won’t repeat it here, particularly the more disturbing accusations. Their effect was, however, to make me question whether I even wanted to read Go Set a Watchman. When Starts at 60 published the first chapter here, I started to waver; it wasn’t as dire as numerous reviews said.
Curiosity won out. Without rereading to To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) – it’s decades since I read it – I started to read. I kept reading until the end. If this book came to me with no fanfare, written by Ms Smith I would applaud a first-time author for the talent she displays and encourage her to keep writing so I can read her second book!
In TKAM, we hear the voice of Scout, a six-year-old; in Go Set a Watchman, Scout morphs into Jean Louise. She moves to New York, only returning to Maycomb, her home town, annually. This in itself is a most unusual step for a young woman to take in the 1950’s – there is still quite a bit of rebel in Scout/Jean Louise.
Jean Louise looks at the town of Maycomb and on her fifth trip home from New York finds it wanting. Worse still, she also looks at those she loves and finds them wanting. She is physically ill when it dawns on her that the people she idolises are not the people she thinks, wants and needs them to be.
Her beloved father Atticus Finch, the crusading lawyer who “accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won the acquittal for a coloured boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl”, is a bigot. Has he changed his opinions? No, he always was a bigot, but he loves the law and he would have fought the same fight for a white man. It is interesting that this famous trial is not mentioned until approximately half way through the book.
Even Calpurnia, who with Atticus raised her, and Uncle Jack seem to Jean Louise to have caught the same disease that is infecting Maycomb. When did people stop being people and become a colour? Is she the only person in Maycomb who is colour blind?
When Aunt Alexandra invites the women of Maycomb to a morning tea, Jean Louise tries to explain this colour blindness to the amusement, and disbelief, of her southern peers. A delightful piece of writing is Ms Harpers collation of the various conversations overheard by Jean Louise as she hands around food and drink; put together as a narrative. They are very amusing reading.
An interesting argument is Uncle Jack’s belief that slavery and emancipation were the least of the reasons Southerners fought the American Civil War. He asks Jean Louise why share farmers, who had never and would never own slaves, fought to the last man. He asks doesn’t she know “that this territory was a separate nation? No matter what its political bonds, a nation with its own people, existing within a nation. … They fought to preserve their identity. Their political identity, their personal identity.”
From where I sit, the great disservice done to Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee, is to call it a sequel to its famous sibling. It is anything but! Historically it was written before TKAM and rejected by the publisher. Nonetheless, an editor could see the poetic rhythm of Ms Lee’s writing and suggested she approach the story another way.
To Kill A Mockingbird is often put into the YA genre, a novel for young adults. I gather it is a set text in many American schools and in Year 10 in the New South Wales curriculum. Can we then call Go Set a Watchman a coming of age novel? Is discovering a “new Maycomb” just Scout becoming Jean Louise and seeing what was always around her? Or, is this just Harper Lee writing a different story altogether?
Thank you to Dymocks for providing my ARC of Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee. It is interesting in many ways, not least of which is watching the development of a novel from the first draft to a classic. As a stand alone novel, it deserves its own place on our bookshelf as a first novel of a very talented writer.
Please share your thoughts on both Harper Lee novels – your opinion is welcomed and valued.