To Kill a Mockingbird has been one of my favorite books since the first time I read it in high school. The movie adaptation starring Gregory Peck is a favorite as well. I always thought it was a shame that Harper Lee only published the one book, but I respected her decision not to turn out uninspired works just to make money. When it was first announced that a new novel was going to be released, I was thrilled. Then I found out that the circumstances were suspect at best.
Concerned that Harper Lee was being taken advantage of, I decided not to purchase the book. But when I was at the library a few weeks ago and noticed several copies on the shelf, I couldn’t help but check it out.
Let’s be clear here: Mockingbird is a better book than Go Set A Watchman. Although Watchman was written first, I don’t think it could survive without being preceded by Mockingbird. Mockingbird is why you care about the characters in Watchman, and I found that I did care very deeply about them.
Watchman is the story of an adult Scout, who has gone off to New York and become a career woman. When she returns to her childhood home, she’s struck by the way racism pervades Maycomb. Being away from it has caused her to lose her desensitization. The frog is out of the pot. Scout, being young and wordly, is passionate about righting all the wrongs. Meanwhile, even those who largely agree with her advise moderation.
I had heard long before I read the book that Atticus, the heroic Atticus, was racist. I was expecting the stereotypical southern racist, but that wasn’t the case. Atticus’s racism is a more nuanced, almost well-intentioned racism that you can almost start to agree with until you suddenly remember that it is still racism.
There are a few plot details that would allow one to argue that Mockingbird and Watchman aren’t in the same universe, but that does a disservice to the story. The Atticus of the 1930s and the Atticus of the 1950s are the same man, but Scout has changed. I think most people can identify with the idea of seeing faults in their parents as adults that they were totally blind to as kids.
This is where Watchman shines. It’s not going to become an American classic, but it is much more thought-provoking. In Mockingbird, the line between good and bad is largely clear. Not so in Watchman, and it forces the reader to consider not only the abstract concepts of race, but how to address racism in the real world. Is it right to burn down all the injustice in a sweeping blaze of righteous indignation, or is it better to slowly work to help those who can be helped and let the rest fade away? And if it’s better to work slowly, is that a position that can only be held by the privileged while the oppressed are forced to endure more oppression?
There’s no doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird is a better book: artistically, commercially, and politically. But Go Set a Watchman is an important follow-on, and I’m glad it has seen the light of day. I only hope that Harper Lee really does feel the same way.