Whether this sequel/forerunner to "To Kill A Mockingbird" was published because its author chose to so do is a perplexing matter. Questions have been asked and doubts expressed. Harper Lee is now 89 and suffered a stroke some 5 years ago. She has also suffered from the death of her lawyer sister, Alice; a particular loss as it was Alice who handled her financial and legal affairs. There have been many versions of the story of 'how the lost manuscript came to be found' leaving none of the parties involved in the best light - with the exception of the author herself.
What is not contentious is that "Go Set a Watchman" is the story Harper Lee wrote first. She wrote it from the viewpoint of Scout as a young adult and it depicts her relationship with her elderly father, Atticus. who she has long idolised. Ms Lee's publishers rejected the manuscript but asked her to re-work the story with the aid of an editor. Two years later, "To Kill A Mockingbird" was published, and a phenomena was born.
Is Go Set A Watchman a good book? Its decent enough - I gave it 3 (out of 5) stars on Goodreads. A lot of what I read gets 3 as, in order to receive 4 or 5, a book has to be very good, or exceptional. To Kill A Mockingbird received 5 stars - because it is exceptional.
So, why the difference? Both books are located in the same southern town, the central characters are still Scout and her father Atticus and the supporting cast is largely drawn from the same pool. But there are differences. The key one being that one story is written from the point of view of a child, the other an adult. What is gauche and naive in the adult, is real and honest in the child. As a result, the subjects of The South and Racism are front and centre in the first draft, but far more nuanced in the second - we get to observe rather than be lectured.
Additionally, one has had the benefit of an excellent editor, the other received no editing whatsoever. In the second draft, Ms Lee has developed her craft as a writer - there are more central characters, they are better drawn, the story is more personal and less about the big issues. Scout's voice remains strong through both drafts but, in the second draft, we can easily see how Atticus becomes a hero to his children - for he becomes a hero to many of us.
So, to the thorny problem with "Go Set A Watchman" - the fact that Atticus is a racist, anti-segregation and anti NAACP. That he believes in the inferiority of negroes, likening them to children, being without the capacity for governance or for equality. Scout is shocked to see her father listening - without protest - to a vitriolic racist spreading his bile. Atticus tries try to explain the difference between his views and that of the bile-spewing vitriolic man. Whilst Scout doesn't accept this argument and expresses her rage, her disappointment and her distress, she also outs herself as being not quite so colour blind as she claims when she exclaims : "its not like I'm going to marry a negro".
By re-telling the story with Scout as a child, these differing levels of racial and social inequality didn't have to be examined too closely. A great personal story could be told against the backdrop of the big issues and - in To Kill A Mockingbird - it certainly was.
I am grateful for the opportunity of seeing - in detail - the difference in craft between an ordinary piece of work and a great one. Its easy to appreciate great writing, but one never gets to see earlier drafts, before the rough edges are knocked off, the editing done, the grit polished up to be a diamond. For this reason alone, I am glad to have read "Go Set A Watchman".
Have you read it yet - if so, what did you think? Or have you made an active decision not to read it?
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