(Spoilers ahead, because I’m not going to try to figure out what’s a spoiler and what’s not.)
So Harper Lee’s lost book was published a few weeks back. There was some controversy over the publishing of it due to Lee’s diminished capacity. I’m not going to go too deep into that because it’s complicated and I sure as hell don’t know what’s going on. But some googling provides interesting reading if you’d like to know more.
Go Set a Watchman was actually written prior to To Kill a Mockingbird submitted and rejected. The publishers were intrigued by the flashbacks in the novel and suggested a book based on those, and Mockingbird was born.
This fact shows through upon reading Watchman. I read Mockingbird just prior to starting Watchman as a way to refresh my memory. Several passages in Watchman are recycled wholesale in Mockingbird. (Although, I guess it’s actually the other way around in reality.)
I’m not sure it’s fair to consider the book a sequel, as some of the events that happened in Mockingbird are contradicted in Watchman. Atticus wins the trial in Watchman for example (although it’s only recounted in passing in a few sentences.) The accused is recounted as “a boy.” Whether that’s a derogatory reference or if the central figure was changed in Mockingbird was unclear to me, but it seems to be the latter given context. Additionally, from what I gather, Scout’s Aunt Alexandra came to live with them much later than occurs in Mockingbird.
The Story itself is a mixture of a “coming of age” and a “coming home” story. Although Scout (now referred to primarily by her given name Jean Louise) is an adult living out in New York, she still isn’t entirely grown up.
She comes back to Maycomb country as part of a yearly visit. The story is a mixture of flashbacks to her childhood (mostly revolving around her on-again-off-again suitor/boyfriend Henry, who, despite never being mentioned in Mockingbird lived across the street from young Scout in this version of reality.)
There isn’t much of a straightforward plot to Watchman (a clear sign they didn’t do any editing to the book). The non-flashback parts revolve mostly around the happenings in Maycomb in the wake of Brown v. The Board of education. Here we have the part that made all the news about the racist turn of Atticus Finch.
My thoughts on this are more or less as follows. If Watchman isn’t relegated to the dust bin of history as something that shouldn’t have been published in the first place (being an unedited, effectively unfinished mess) then it will become a cultural Rorschach test on racism. As things go, I found myself unsurprised by Atticus. Did he make statements that would be construed as racist today? Yes. Were they the worst of the south during Jim Crow? Not even close. (There’s a charitable interpretation that he doesn’t blame race as the issue either, but rather thinks that you can’t elevate any group from slavery to full civil rights in such a short time span.)
The book also goes out of the way to note that Atticus’s primary concern is protecting anyone from what he sees as bullies. It’s given as the reason he took the central case in Mockingbird. In many respects he could be compared to the ALCU of bygone days except with a bit more “old south” bias. It’s even said directly that he’d allow the KKK to march “and make fools of themselves” but the minute they raised a hand at anyone he’d bring the full force of the law on them. In this particular case he feels the federal government is overstepped it’s bounds to become the bully, and its use of force to achieve its goals will burn down the south in “a second reconstruction.” (There’s even a 2 page discussion of the Tenth Amendment.)
So basically, while Atticus may be misguided, I found the outcry about it overwrought. If you read only the media accounts of the book you’d think he had become a the Grand Dragon of the KKK. Instead he’s mostly a person muddling through what is ultimately a lose-lose situation. No matter what happens, the budding racial harmony in Mockingbird stands no chance of surviving. This much is made clear when Jean Louise (or “colorblind” hero of the book) go to meet Calpurnia, the woman who effectively raised her, only to be given the cold shoulder due to the racial tensions spinning out of control.
As I said, the book is effectively a Rorschach test on personal views. And I don’t think that’s a result of good writing as much as it is the lack of clarity and direction. Ultimately to me the only real redeeming part was when they brought everything back to Jean Louise’s untethering from her father. In a sense this was something we saw in Mockingbird that Scout had effectively tethered her conscience to Atticus. For a child this is expected, but she never lost that growing up until the events of this book. It renders an element of closure to Mockingbird but in doing so, I think also harms the Mockingbird’s legacy mostly by being a bad follow-up.
For the curious Watchman is a fairly short easy read. But you probably won’t miss out if you skip it either.
[Edited to add a cover image]