(Alternative post title: In Defense of a New Book, or The Mockingbird of Could-Have-Been)
To Kill a Mockingbird was, is, and (I think) forever shall be one of my favorite pieces of American literature. More generally, of all literature (and as a Brit lit specialist, that means Harper Lee is ranking right up there with Billy Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and P.G. Wodehouse). So imagine my excitement when the announcement came that Ms. Lee would be publishing a new book, a sequel of the beloved TKM.
It was something like this:
Working in a bookstore, we were hit with waves of emotions. The first, I believe, was absolute giddiness. The second, absolute fear. The third, an ethical dilemma. In the first, we had waited long enough to find out what happened to our beloved characters. In the second, what if it wasn’t as good as TKM? There were no edits, after all, and what if she’s not really the brilliant writer we all believed her to be? And in the third, how are we meant to behave with this news? Some questioned whether or not Lee was being taken advantage of, some wondered if it was even worth it to publish the “sequel” to an American classic.
And yet we beat on against the current, and the months turned to weeks turned to days.
And then, all of a sudden, social media blew up with articles, the majority of which were headlined “ATTICUS A RACIST.” (If you don’t believe me, check out this and this.) So, of course, I read some of the articles and promptly decided to ignore them. (Here, however, is a link to the NYT review that broke the international embargo…) Reviews of the book were slipping out, and people have been arguing that Go Set a Watchman is the toppling of idols, the destruction of a great American novel, not to be borne.
So, of course, as soon as I had my copy in hand, I set about to determine whether or not these reviewers had a leg upon which to stand (and may I just say that I did so in one long sitting). I am, above all things, a creature raised to be reasonable (thank you, Mom and Dad) and after reasonability comes my education at a liberal arts college where I earned two BAs: Literature and History. As people began discussing a book which most had not yet read, arguing for why Atticus shouldn’t have ever been a racist, determinedly telling me they would never read the book not EVER because HOW DARE THEY, it seemed to me that the issues of the new novel’s origin and time period have been forgotten.
To address the latter first, where TKM was set during the Depression and at a point when WWII was on the horizon, GSW takes on America post-WWII and during the Civil Rights movement… in the South. So… let’s just stew over that for a moment. I’m going to guess that there are a few new issues that our favorite characters are going to be facing based solely on that little tidbit.
To address the former of my irritations, GSW was written first. Let that percolate for a moment as well. While, chronologically, GSW is a “sequel” to TKM, it is impossible for it to actually be a sequel because TKM didn’t even exist. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to explain why I think people are going insane for odd reasons, and I think I’ve got my… let’s call it a metaphor.
Imagine, if you will, that the great J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his incredible epic The Lord of the Rings first. We still meet hobbits and elves and other critters, but there’s something missing. It’s not published yet, and instead we’re gifted The Hobbit, a delightfully whimsical, yet still provocative, piece of fantasy which all human beings should read (in my very humble opinion). But lo! Years later, someone is going through Tolkien’s chest of writing (I somehow can only imagine him with a vast trunk/treasure chest full of scribbles) and finds LotR! What amazement! What glory! What great victory!
Yet when we read this version of LotR, the one written before we’d been introduced to a developed Bilbo, or understood what happens with the dwarves, or why Gollum is kind of a freaky thing, it’s not the same. Pieces of the puzzle are missing and, while it’s still an interesting fantasy trilogy, it’s not the LotR we would have expected to follow The Hobbit.
(Now, hang in here with me because I know this is not even close to a perfect parallel, but I’m going to try to explain my reasoning.) Without having built Middle Earth in The Hobbit, Tolkien’s LotR would have been, I assume, vastly different. Not necessarily worse, but different. There is no universe, I think, in which an author could begin writing a sequel to a book he or she has not yet written and in which that sequel would align perfectly with a beautifully edited first publication.
Allow me to apply this logic to my reading of GSW (and, for the sake of humanity and its need to read and dispel ignorance on subjects of cultural literacy, I shall refrain from spoilers).
TKM is, in my readings and re-readings, a beautifully structured, written, and emotional book. It is very close to perfection. GSW is widely different from its predecessor, and I cannot consider these differences flaws because it was the first novel. Now allow me to offer a quick list of things that are the same in TKM and GSW.
- Atticus is Scout’s father
- Scout’s name is Jean Louise
- Scout’s brother is/was Jem
- Maycomb is a tired old town
- Aunt Alexandra wears corsets
- Uncle Jack is Atticus and Alexandra’s brother
- Atticus is a lawyer
- Scout is a tomboy
- Dill is/was friends with Jem and Scout and visits/visited Miss Rachel
- … and that’s about it
Now let me point out some major differences in GSW
- Scout goes by Jean Louise
- SPOILER: Jem is dead (you find that out in Chapter 1, so it’s a minor spoiler at best)
- Boo Radley – nay, all Radleys go unmentioned
- Miss Maudie has no appearance either as memory or as living/breathing neighbor
- Mrs. Dubose gets one sentence
- Henry Clinton exists, and was apparently friends with Jem and Scout forever
- … and the list goes on and on and… oh, yeah, there’s another important one
- TOM ROBINSON IS NEVER MENTIONED BY NAME AND THE RAPE TRIAL IN WHICH ATTICUS DEFENDS A BLACK MAN IS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
Sorry. Spoiler alert for that one, too.
So this is one of the major reasons I’m already tired of calling it a “sequel”. That’s what I was calling it, because that’s what everyone was saying. It’s a “sequel” only in the sense that there are several characters with the same names as those in TKM who still interact in Maycomb and the time period of the novel is later than TKM.
Which is why I’m writing this enormously long rant about a book that I enjoyed just fine, but which I would not call a classic in any sense of the word. I would call it a fascinating piece of historical context, both for the period in which GSW takes place and for its place in Lee’s own story. In other words, for the very short version of this review: Read Go Set a Watchman to be able to study the development of the characters from Lee’s first written work to the first novel she published that has won our hearts over and over again.
Now that I’ve joined the ranks of people who have read the ATTICUS IS A RACIST book, I can say this: this Atticus is not our Atticus, just as this Jean Louise is not our Scout. How can anyone argue GSW is really a sequel when the case which consumes the entirety of TKM is completely different, only briefly mentioned, and did I mention completely different?
Here is the second part of the short version of the review: Don’t read Go Set a Watchman to stir up trouble or to find the racism and the evil. As Judge Taylor says in TKM, “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” Read Go Set a Watchman to see a new perspective of what could have been. And read Go Set a Watchman to bless (repeatedly) the publisher and editors who took To Kill a Mockingbird and made it what it is.
I had little intention of making this a pages-long rambling of why people are reading this book wrong, but there you have it. Those people who have not read the work and understood that it cannot, CANNOT, be a sequel for the simple reason that the facts of the books do not align and yet declare it a toppling of the Atticus Finch I love have driven me to madness. All I can do is remember two of my favorite quotes from the real Atticus.
The first, a reminder to myself of why I am writing this, because sometimes thinking is the best way to go about a debate: “You just hold your head high and keep those fists down No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.”
And the second, and the one of the most important from the whole book: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
So before you join the hordes of people calling for the removal of TKM, or hollering about the destruction of idols in GSW, remember to walk around in the skin of a first novel that just found the light of a publishing house. Consider its angles, its history, its role in a writer’s development.
And thank God for Harper Lee and the publishing team who gave us TKM and all its beauty.
Please remember to support your local indie bookstore by picking up your copy of Go Set a Watchman today!