Is it Worth A Read?: Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee

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As our faithful blog followers know, every week we post a review of a book we consider worth a read. We don’t trash books we don’t like, so there are no negative reviews here. Each book we write about is one we consider valuable, either because of the story itself or the writing, or both.

Which brings us to our current quandary about Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s recently published “lost” manuscript. Those of us who place To Kill A Mockingbird among our favorite novels of all time have wanted another work by Lee for decades. Here it is, and for the most part it sounds like a disappointment.

Media coverage of the release of this new/old novel has been relentless. Here’s what we know so far:

1. This is Lee’s first book, the one rejected by many publishers when she first presented it to them in 1957. A thoughtful editor, Tay Hohoff, saw the gift in Lee’s writing and instead worked with her to rewrite it into the To Kill A Mockingbird so many of us know and love. Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel or even a prequel. It’s a manuscript that was once considered unpublishable. TKAM was a rewrite of that manuscript.

2. Details are sketchy about just how and why this book was released now. With Lee in an assisted living facility and her sister and protector dead, the smart money is on those close to her hoping to make a lot of cash.

3. In Go Set A Watchman, Atticus Finch is an unrepentant bigot, not the hero and warrior for justice we met in TKAM. This has been hard for some readers to understand, especially those who think of fictional Atticus as a real life role model. I suspect that Lee wanted to make the same statement about the ugliness of racism in both books, but that this first version of Atticus would have been (and still is) too much for readers to stomach. Under her editor’s guidance, she rewrote him in TKAM as more like herself, someone who fights for what’s right in a community that sees morality differently. In her rewrite Lee learned to show, not tell, the cardinal rule of fiction writing.

4. While the writing is good, and Lee’s signature voice is there (read the first chapter here), the plot wanders and goes nowhere. Critics have called it “plodding” or “boring”. A few have admitted to abandoning the novel midway.

I’m resisting this book, yet I know resistance is futile. I don’t want to miss out, but I don’t want to waste my time. As a writer, I have to respect the shakiness of first drafts and the power of rewrites. As a reader, I love masterpieces. Deep down a part of me (my young girl’s heart) doesn’t want to tarnish To Kill A Mockingbird; the rest of me (my adult mind) knows that’s irrational.

This book is a great big angel-devil, a giant Push Me Pull You! Like growing up, it’s only a matter of time until I succumb.

 

About Leah Carey

Author, As Simple As Breathing - https://www.amazon.com/author/lcarey

4 comments on “Is it Worth A Read?: Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee

  1. I have almost finished the book. It is not as well written as TKAB, but there are compelling reasons to read it. Why was it rejected in the first place – style, substance or was it a case of cold feet from the publisher. Remember this is a contemporary book about the south in the 1950’s – an enormous number of people in this country would have been highly offended by this book.

    In light of Charleston, Ferguson and other events of the year, I think it is a good reminder of just how much racism still exists in this country and it will give younger people a decent frame of reference.

    • Hi Peggy – great points. It is so interesting to have it released now, given all that’s happened in the last few months, and to see how it still rings true. Maybe Harper Lee had a greater hand in this release than we think… (I would just love that :))

  2. I’m with you, Leah. I have resisted reading Watchman for all the reasons you give. However, I am
    still curious and will undoubtedly “succumb” as you put it.

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