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Harper Lee publishes new novel after 55 years

Source: Anadolu Agency / Getty

On my first day of reading Go Set A Watchman, I made it halfway through Harper Lee’s vivid storytelling with ease, quickly finding myself enthralled in her rich and witty language. The book is full of little verses that are true to the art of Southern storytelling; sentences that pull you through the story, each one sweet like summer honeysuckle, bringing to life a vague memory of names and places from Lee’s first work, To Kill A Mockingbird.

But alas, life took over and it took me until the weekend to fall fully into the revival of cultish fascination with To Kill A Mockingbird.  As it was announced that the book hit over $1 million in sales, maybe you, too, are working this sequel to a classic into your summer reading.

So let’s talk.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but did not love it.  That was a miss that I attribute to the editor, or the lack there of, because where Lee set markers for deep storylines, the book was a shallow dive into new events within a world that has meant so much to the American literary cannon.  It reads as though there was someone too timid to push the writer as much as the famed editor who was the crucial support in creating the original tome.  I get it; she’s an elder.  Plus, it must be intimidating to tell Lee that she needs to dive deeper, but someone should have done so.  SPOILER: We kept getting teased about a trial that never plays out.  Why mention it for various chapters and then nothing? Nothing! Why?!

To Kill A Mockingbird

An image from the 1962 film, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” based on Lee’s wildly-successful first novel. Source: Archive/Universal / Getty

I sailed through the first half of Go Set A Watchman because I was searching for the plot.  (According to my Kindle, that really picked up 60-percent of the way through the book.) In this story, we meet the adult Scout, who now goes by Jean Louise. She’s now a woman in her late twenties in the 1950s, living in New York City, riding the train home to Maycomb, AL to see her father. Halfway through the book (or said visit home) we discover “home” has changed, or for the first time, home becomes clear for Jean Louise.

And while the book hits on opportunities to develop intrigues, from romance to race, nothing is actually developed, not even the big hoopla plot-point that Atticus is a racist.  (SPOILER REFERENCES, KIND OF)  You won’t see him in a court as a racist lawyer.  You won’t see him invoke his racist beliefs on a Black person.  You won’t get a grand finale to the romantic tease.  You will Google the Biblical reference to setting a watchman and wonder if the ending serves the title.

But most importantly, you will enjoy Harper Lee’s language.  It will make you wonder why she did not in fact write more.  And you will wonder why this was not marketed more like a published draft instead of a completed work.

With all the things I could say, here are my main thoughts on the book:

  1. This is a book you read with a buddy: As was true of when I was assigned To Kill A Mockingbird in middle school, Go Set A Watchman is a collective read, but this time not because it difficult.  Every other chapter was like processing a night of Scandal.   Watchman will have you wanting to turn to a friend and say, “Um, wait…did you get the part?”  “Did she just say…?”  It is kind of unfulfilling without someone with whom to share the reading experience.
  2. It is the refreshing keep-it-real: I am one of those “fussy about racial storytelling” types, i.e., The Help (book and movie) gave me a headache on-site. I hate White saviors.  I am bored by Whites who feign being completely untouched by pervasive racism and love to be a hero in the telling of American apartheid.  I liked Corrina, Corrina with Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta, enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees as a book and as movie, but my face spazzes every time I see the poster for that Jackie Robinson film from last year.  This book is bomb because the Whites are open about where on the spectrum of liking to hating Black people they are on.  There is no White savior.
  3. There is not enough Calpurnia: What is a lovely Southern story without a Black housekeeper? Well, she is pretty MIA in this book, although there are these strong hints that we will get her.  While Lee kept it real, I kind of want her to do a third part that is just straight Calpurnia’s life.  At the very least, a five-page essay on how she was named and what she thought her life would be before she came to the employ of the Finch family.
  4. It will improve your SAT vocabulary: I learned a few new words.  I hope to integrate them into my vocabulary so I can seem really fancy, using words such as ‘perspicacious,’ ‘lugubrious’ and ‘careened’ in my daily regimen.
  5. Scout is also into True Detective: So apparently, there were these True Detective series back in the day, which is where the HBO series comes from.  I wonder if Scout was lost the whole time she followed that version of the series as well.
  6. Atticus is a racist: In the words of President Obama, just because you don’t say “nigger,” doesn’t mean you are not racist.  And in my words, just because you represent Black people, doesn’t mean you are not a racist.  I think a lot of the shock over the development is the belief that as long as you are not lynching, you are not a racist.  But I really think people remember the movie more than the book, and are like, “Gregory Peck is not racist?!”  It takes a lot of work in America to not be racist.  So the reaction was a bit too much.  That said, I feel like Harper Lee did it that way for “non-racists” to run through their thoughts without having to say things like “Ta-Nehisi opens my eyes,” and maybe be like “I worry about the distribution of resources in America, and I don’t want to share it with people who are not White.”  But Lee goes in on racist thoughts in such a fashion that the reading-buddy comes in handy.  There is reference to Blacks being too infantile and savage for freedom by various characters.  I still need to talk through what I read.  SPOILER: I think Scout is a bit racist herself.
  7. The situation with Atticus and Scout is real, relevant and relatable: It is almost as though Harper Lee timed her latest release with the stuff going down in our world. Sandra Bland, Freddy Gray, Eric Garner … I feel like we’re in a civil rights movement that is not just yet a movement.  And something about Harper Lee in the time of racial conversation somewhat comforting.  But as we also look at gay marriage and other social issues, the story is really about what it is like to realize you are more progressive than your parents and how to deal with it.  In all, the story is a worthwhile reality check on values, and while it could have so much more, Go Set A Watchman proves to be an incredibly satiating and pleasing story.  There just really should have been another trial in this story.
  8. Oh yeah, you don’t need to have read or reread To Kill A Mocking Bird. Not at all necessary.

So I read it and enjoyed it and am mining Twitter for a reading buddy with whom I can process the moments that still have me thinking through this wonderful world by Harper Lee.  This is a summer should.

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