Harper Lee has a “new” book. I was worried I was going to be forced to change my daughter’s name.
There was so much meaning behind why I chose it in the first place. If that meaning was to be tarnished, spoiling the value behind the name for me, how difficult would it be to teach my 6-year-old her new name? It would be challenging for sure. She has been ingrained since birth with the story of her name and why I chose it.
“You are named after one of the greatest writers of all time,” I tell her. “This author wrote only one book in her lifetime, and it’s by far one of the most important books ever created.”
As I sit here today, I believe this to be true. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the greatest literary masterpieces of all time. I am an attorney, yet my love for that book has nothing to do with the law or standing up for the innocent.
Indeed that is an important theme of the book. For me, TKAM stands the test of time because its pages are filled with the most important message we can teach a child and one another. To be honest, be fair, and be kind; but most of all, be a human being and simply care for one another. In short, have compassion.
TKAM is the best parenting book on the market. You can quote me.
I grew up adoring this novel from the first time I read it as a teenager. I also adored the movie, especially Gregory Peck, who as an intelligent and humble Atticus Finch was the ultimate heartthrob to a bookie like me.
My own husband reminds me of Atticus Finch in some ways. Perhaps that added to my affection when he swept me off my feet in college at The University of Tulsa. So naturally, when it came time to discuss naming our first baby I had decided on the name long ago. Harper was going to be my baby. It worked out well when we found out Harper would also be a girl.
When I learned that this “new” book by Harper Lee had been discovered and would be published, I was horrified at first. I have followed the news about Harper Lee over the years (what little there was the past few decades or so) and how secluded she had become, refusing interviews or to even sign any more books.
I was a skeptic from the start. I questioned (and still do) whether Harper Lee really wanted this published. Her sister Alice was her staunch supporter and protector. Alice passed a few years ago and now all of a sudden this secluded and health-failing author has decided to release a book. Not just any book, but the first book she had ever written which another publisher more than five decades ago told her wasn’t very good.
That’s right, the book Go Set a Watchman wasn’t very good when she wrote it and (spoiler alert) it still isn’t very good. The publisher who read it all those years ago suggested she go back to the drawing board and try again, this time from a completely different time period and point of view.
Focus on the childhood years of your protagonist Scout, the publisher suggested. Harper Lee listened and went back to work, starting over on a completely different book. Two years later, TKAM was born.
TKAM was so instantly successful it was thought Harper Lee simply never needed to write another book. She won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Who really knows why she never wrote another book. She has shed very little light on that subject.
Now this “new” book has been published. I want to love it, but I can’t; I’m sorry.
The book is hastily written as though a spark of an idea was just taking too long to finesse so instead it was thrown together and wrapped up without much actual plot. Another reviewer of the book claims it is “more complex” than TKAM, yet “not as compelling.”
I agree that Go Set a Watchman is not very compelling but disagree with the assessment that it’s more complex. It is not. The only complexity here is explaining to non-literary buffs the fact that Go Set a Watchman truly isn’t a sequel to TKAM.
In fact, it is a completely different book with characters who share some of their TKAM traits, but only enough that you can casually link them together.
A few main characters from TKAM are present but some are cast off so quickly and so abruptly that any TKAM diehards are going to be upset. Naturally!
Some readers were truly hoping this would be an extension of TKAM. Unfortunately you cannot make that connection. Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is a different person, written from a different perspective than what Harper Lee used when she wrote TKAM. Scholars are going to debate the connection of the two novels for years.
This is where my friends’ eyes start to glaze over at parties as I delve into the two novels (except my book club because they get me).
Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel. Not even in the slightest. Characteristics of Atticus in Go Set a Watchman were similar such as his speech pattern, profession, and mannerisms. His philosophical beliefs, however, were guided by a much different moral compass but there is no explanation for how or why he is so different in these books.
Simply put, the books just don’t fit together as seamlessly as they should if Go Set a Watchman was truly supposed to be a sequel.
The character of Scout is where Go Set a Watchman finally succeeds at something. Scout is still mostly Scout. She is brash and rough around the edges but engrained with a moral standard for which we should all live and abide by.
In Go Set a Watchman Scout has arrived home for an extended visit and she is met with a much different town from the picturesque version painted in TKAM. Present-day Maycomb in Go Set a Watchman is on the brink of desegregation and it is no secret that townsfolk are not fully in support.
Scout sees people she loves begin to take the side of “separate but equal,” and it disgusts her.
The entire premise of Go Set a Watchman is centered around Scout coming to terms with the present-day Maycomb as opposed to her childhood Maycomb. It is a disjointed coming of age literary style that just doesn’t work because Scout is too mature for coming of age.
She should be taking a leadership position in the novel or simply move along if she can’t stand it. Instead of taking any action (even just packing up and leaving town) she throws tantrums which as a young Scout we found endearing and charming.
As an adult, however, Scout’s tantrums and the way her family still coddles her as you would a child comes across as annoying.
Harper Lee shares long glimpses into Scout’s childhood and in these moments of the book, the reader is swept back in time to days gone by in Maycomb. It is the time and place where we first met and fell in love with Scout, Atticus, Jem, Dil, and Calpurnia.
The anecdotes of her childhood that are remembered and reflected upon by Scout in Go Set a Watchman are what make the book readable. The lack of a sophisticated plot or character development in Go Set a Watchman is slightly forgivable because Harper Lee has woven enough childhood memories into the book to keep it interesting.
Here is where the diehards will either disagree with me, or wholeheartedly embrace me: Go Set a Watchman has very little to do with TKAM and should be disassociated with TKAM.
Gasp! Did I just say that? Yes. I did.
The two books should be wholly separate from one another and if you read Go Set a Watchman, you must take it as a completely separate story and set of characters with maybe the exception of Scout.
It is the chapters focusing on Scout’s youth that finally engage the reader. That’s the very thing that prompted Harper Lee’s publisher all those years ago to say she was on to something but that it could be better.
Her publisher told her to try again, and she did. Thank goodness or my kid would have been called Gertrude (which is a beautiful name but maybe not as good a fit for my spunky 6-year-old).
My advice is that if you truly loved TKAM maybe you should read Go Set a Watchman simply because it is interesting to see Harper Lee’s rough work on her characters.
My suggestion for how this all should be written into the history books is this: Go Set a Watchman probably should never have been published in this form and it worries many, like me, that it will ruin Harper Lee’s legacy.
It will not ruin her legacy, however. You simply cannot refute the timeless and immeasurable impact TKAM has made in literature and on society.
It will always remain questionable whether Harper Lee truly wanted Go Set a Watchman published in the first place, no matter what statement is made from her agent. Readers like me question why it was never edited or reworked before being published.
It is an abandoned work that should only be read out of curiosity, not literary obligation. Maybe educators will mention it in class as an interesting side note about the author and how TKAM came to be. It is my hope that this is the only form of impact the book leaves on literary history.
And just so you know, no, I am not changing my daughter’s name.
Jennifer White lives in Tulsa with her husband, Brad White, and is the mother of three precocious children who love to read. She is an attorney, book club fanatic and Girl Scout troop leader.
White’s favorite book is, what else? To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee