Posted in Observations

Why I’m Avoiding Another Trip to Maycomb: Thoughts on Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Some things are better left untouched.

If you pay any attention to the book world, you probably know that Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, has published a new book: Go Set A Watchman. Even as a large fan of TKAM after a re-read last summer, I find myself hesitant to grab GSAW. The controversy surrounding the publishing coupled with the origin of the book make me feel as though it might be a mistake.

Go Set A Watchman was Lee’s original work, offered up to a publisher. It was rejected, and an editor suggested writing about the main character as a little girl. This advice gave us To Kill A Mockingbird, taught as part of high school reading curriculum and considered a classic by most. Lee never published another work and didn’t intend to, until last year some time when the world suddenly got wind of GSAW. Though Lee’s mental state is often questioned and her attorney and others are suspected of pushing her, GSAW has been published. I’m not going to discuss the probability of these situations here. I sincerely hope that Lee hasn’t been exploited, because “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” (TKAM, p. 267).

Thus far, I haven’t looked at any reviews. I read the first chapter for free when it came out. It was definitely Harper Lee style as we know and (some of us) love, but it was also a dalliance into a realm that we may not need to plunder.

For decades, Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo, Atticus, and all the beloved characters of TKAM have stood the test of time. Year after year, high schoolers delve into this world of the small-town old south. Though I was born in the late 80s, I found much of my own small southern hometown lurking in the depths of Maycomb, in a manner that I couldn’t truly understand until I re-read the book last summer. There I saw the guilt, the subtle undertones of racism, tradition, and fear of change that permeate most of the folks that reside there. It is a specific state of mind I haven’t encountered elsewhere, aside from others who’ve shared similar experiences. I was caught in that state of mind myself for a while, if on the fringes more so than in the midst of it. I would characterize myself growing up as sharing a kinship with Jem, caught on the cusp of understanding and the right path, but misunderstanding the limits of my own ability to stand apart from it all.

On my second read, last summer, of TKAM, I was moved by the story. I knew Atticus, I felt the weight that rested on Miss Maudie’s shoulders, and the frustration of Scout trying to figure out just what all these adults were doing. I truly understood the magic of the scene before the jail where Scout stops a riot, and I understood the political and social machinations that made the trial even occur. The last line of the book brought tears to my eyes, as the adult me realized I had that same faith in my father — that he would be there.

I don’t want to break those characters up into different parts, where life has had them transcend into different people. Readers have stated that Atticus is a racist old man in GSAW. While this doesn’t quite jive with what he does in TKAM, and ignoring the fact that GSAW isn’t really a sequel, people do change. To fall into the trap of considering this book a sequel is to let those characters become confusing.

The thing is, I have the power to make them not change. I don’t have to read GSAW.

I don’t blame Lee, really. It’s her book and her world, and if she really did want to publish the book, then that was great for her. I don’t think we’ll ever really know the truth. I don’t think the public relations folks involved with GSAW truly understood that the general public would never not view GSAW as a true sequel, even when the situation around the book was illustrated to the public frequently. There are people who thought Titanic was just a movie.
In light of all this, I don’t think I’m going to partake in GSAW. The prices seem exorbitant, even in ebook form, and I just can’t countenance throwing money into it. I might pick up the third book, though, as outlined in this Onion article: My Excellent Caretaker Deserves My Entire Fortune. Sounds like a winner.

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