Friday July 17, 2015

Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman: Should I read it?

Harper Lee's newest novel Go Set a Watchmen and her classic To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harper Lee's newest novel Go Set a Watchmen and her classic To Kill a Mockingbird. (Harper Collins/AP Photo)

Listen 9:21

Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne takes on Harper Lee's controversial new book Go Set a Watchman, her first book since the beloved To Kill A Mockingbird in 1961. Controversy has surrounded its publication, with some raising questions about whether the 89-year-old Lee truly wanted this work published.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Helen Mann: I can't remember this much hype for any book. You can't get away from it. In every newspaper, as soon as you go online, people are commenting on this. Given the love people have for To Kill a Mockingbird and all the advance and current hype about this book was it possible for you to evaluate it as a reviewer independently?

Becky Toyne: There has never been a publishing event like this that I can think of, nor will there be again unless J.D. Salinger comes back from the dead. It's really important as a reviewer to review a book on its own terms, not based on other things that you might prefer that it had been. It's actually impossible to do that with this book. It comes with so much baggage. Everyone in the world knows To Kill a Mockingbird! There are forty million copies of that book sold. And also, there's all this really bizarre back-story that we know about this book suddenly coming to light. There are some questions about whether Harper Lee really truly wanted it to be published the way it is. It's impossible to review the book without all of that in mind.

There are also questions about what exactly this book is. Is it a sequel?  Was it a rough draft?  

Yes, this is one of the other many quite big questions surrounding this book. Is it a sequel? Is it a prequel? Is it just sort of a companion piece? Is it a working draft? It's set twenty years after the action of To Kill a Mockingbird so in that sense, in terms of the character's lives, it is a sequel. And yet, we know that it was written before To Kill a
Mockingbird
. Should we read it as an early draft of that novel? Should we read it as a completely different draft? It's also not entirely finished. So should we read it as a novel at all, or should we read it as something that will be really useful to academia as a way of informing all kinds of new readings of To Kill a Mockingbird?

It's hard to let go of characters for which you have great affection, and Atticus Finch is one of those people in literature. How are readers going to feel when they meet him in the new book?

So... there's bad news for anyone who named their child Atticus. It's not, I think, at this point a spoiler because it has been all over the press, but what we find out in this novel is that twenty years on from To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus has become a segregationist. And now, twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise - who was Scout in the first novel - now she lives in New York. She's gone back home to visit and she discovers this about her father and she's devastated. She's
disgusted with him. She feels so betrayed because here is this man, her father, who she always idolized and now she finds his political beliefs abhorrent to her.

So does the book explain how Atticus has become a racist, if indeed he has become one as opposed to always being one?

It's a really good question. First of all, she doesn't need to. Harper Lee can do whatever she wants with her characters. Things like this happen behind the scenes all the time, and this book wasn't published. It was reworked into something else. Number two, what we really find out from Atticus is that he's a lawyer and he believes very strongly in the law and doing what the law says. And so in To Kill a Mockingbird, he took a trial that was assigned to him and he defended it according to the law. He didn't necessarily take it for ideological reasons. Now it's possible to see Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird as being someone who projected as being very liberal and all in favor of equal rights. But then twenty years later, he has sort of been turned by the idea that it's OK to be liberal... up to a point. Until suddenly being liberal meant giving away some power and sharing some power - and then we backpedal a bit and say, 'Oh no, but we have to keep the other people in their place.' And that disgusts Jean Louise and it will disgust many readers and fans of Atticus Finch.

It's interesting, though, because it is such a relevant point when we are discussing the whole idea of white privilege and what we're seeing all around us right now. This is not a sequel, but we see Scout as an adult arguing with her father. She's clearly disillusioned with the man and that makes me wonder whether readers will look at this and start to question the perceptions of Scout the child, and what she saw in the first story?

I think it does. You have to remember that Jean Louise was a child in the first book and she did see things in an idealized way. And here's something else that I think is really important to consider when looking at these two books: To Kill a Mockingbird is a young adult novel. We didn't call it that when it came out, but now we probably would call it that. It has a very simple moral center and it is told by a child and it is about children. Jean Louise was a child and she saw things in black and white, and that's the way that we read that novel as well.

Do you think because of that, though, Go Set a Watchman may resonate more for contemporary readers, particularly as a time where we're seeing racial tensions so high in many parts of the U.S.?

One of the strengths of Go Set a Watchman is that actually it is it is a much more political book than To Kill a Mockingbird. I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird a couple of weeks ago in preparation for reviewing this. Reading them back-to-back, it is depressing to see how little progress we have made in so many ways. To see people protesting in the streets across America against white police officers shooting unarmed black men makes you think that the more time passes, the less that we see has changed. 

Are there moments that resonated for you in the book. Anything that that a reader could love about Go Set a Watchman?

If you're a huge fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, then there is a lot for you to take out of this novel, just in terms of going back to the first book and re-examining what you thought of it. Also from an academic point of view, to see this as a character study or as a working draft and to see a modern classic novel in progress. There are also moments of wonderful, wonderful writing in this novel. The childhood scenes... huge sections of the book are told as recollections of her childhood. So the childhood Scout is still there with Jem and Dill and everybody else, but there's no Boo Radley in this book. There's some overlap between the two novels of exact sentences, actually, but in terms of the childhood scenes with Jean-Louise in this book, they're not the same. So you get all of these extra windows into her life as as a young girl. Something I loved about this book that doesn't happen in To Kill a Mockingbird is that there are these scenes where Harper Lee writes snippets of overheard conversation. This dialogue that is so evocative of the time and place just kind of floating around her head.

It's interesting to me how many times you've used the words "academic" and "political". I don't know if those are the things that most fiction readers look for, especially from a book that has characters that have had such meaning for them. Do you think it's going to be be hard for many readers to to embrace this?

I think so. When a book comes with so much expectation, it is almost impossible to live up to that. It's very hard for people not to be disappointed. When people carried around this love for certain characters that a lot of people meet as adolescents and then sort of grow up with the and read them to their children, it's tough to take when they are suddenly presented with this different view of them that is so different and so shocking. To discover that Atticus, who has always been held up as this sort of symbol of good, to find he suddenly become a segregationist, and that he's betrayed his daughter. It's tough to take. 

The big question is: should I read it?

I'm saying no. I think that some of their reviews for this novel have been really mean and some have been kind of fair. I think that there are many, many problems with it. One of which is whether we can  even really judge it as a novel. I found that there were many things to recommend in it, but ultimately there were too many problems, too many things that didn't work.  

Day 6 has two copies of Go Set a Watchman to give away. For your chance to win, email us at day6@cbc.ca with the word "WATCHMAN" in the subject line. Don't forget to include your postal address. We'll pick two winners at random. 

A recap of other early reviews

Other reviews of the book have been mixed with an emphasis on the revelation that the character of Atticus Finch, an idealized father and fair-minded lawyer in To Kill A Mockingbird, is now a racist segregationist. The New York Times released an early review of the novel, revealing Atticus Finch's dark side.

 "The depiction of Atticus in "Watchman" makes for disturbing reading, and for "Mockingbird" fans, it's especially disorienting." - The New York Times 

Book of Negroes author Lawrence Hill's review for the Globe and Mail describes the plot of the book and its limits in describing what it means to be black in America.

"Ultimately, Go Set a Watchman is about a daughter's return home and about the difficult process of coming to terms with a painful truth: Her own father-a person from whom she drew moral guidance-is deeply flawed." - Lawrence Hill

In Chocolat author Joanne Harris's review for Daily Mail, she compares it to Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder and discusses how the novel highlights racial and gender inequalities in 1950's Alabama.

"This is not an easy book. It is a story about coming of age, brutally, into a changing world."- Joanne Harris

Time magazine's review examines Watchman as an amplification of the characters in Mockingbird

"Watchman is both a painful complication of Harper Lee's beloved book and a confirmation that a novel read widely by schoolchildren is far more bitter than sweet"- Time

The Washington Post praises the book for its complex discussion of racism.

"It's still worth reading at a moment when we're grappling yet again with Northern and Southern variations of white supremacy and the idea that good people can do poisonous things."
- The Washington Post

NPR is highly critical of the change in Atticus's character, and controversy over the novel's origins. 

"Go Set a Watchmen is kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece"
- NPR 

The National Post, while critical of the book as a novel, praises it as a rare insight into the editing process.

"Watchmen provides a rare opportunity to see in reverse some of the steps by which a great novel was born from a mediocre one." 
- The National Post