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Go Set a Watchman: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, July 14, 2015
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An historic literary event: the publication of a newly discovered novel, the earliest known work from Harper Lee, the beloved, bestselling author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch?Scout?struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.
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But Go Set a Watchman teaches us there is still yet a third force, the immortal Mammon, still alive to devour our dollars. Perhaps that is not HarperCollins’ motivation; perhaps theirs is something altogether higher. But as a friend noted, there is a great deal of money to be made from this release.
Now before I go further, take note that this isn’t quite a review of Go Set a Watchman. This is a review of how misrepresented the novel is, and how marketing and/or the public deliberately seems to be playing up the controversial aspects—and the lie that this is a “sequel”—in the name of the buyer’s dollar. The novel is functional, but it’s also utterly pedestrian, and filled with unfocused or poor descriptions. The novel itself is the definition of one-star to two-stars. Were this marketed as what it is, the rejected first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, it would deserve more stars, as an artifact that was built into a great novel; but there are more forces at work, forces which misrepresent this novel.
Let this review be a flickering candle in the wilderness, telling you exactly what this book is.
Go Set a Watchman is the first submitted draft of what would become, eventually, To Kill a Mockingbird. When the Lippincott editor Therese von Hohoff Torrey first saw Watchman, in far off 1957, she felt it was “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”  It took a number of years—and a number of drafts—to rework the novel. As she wrote, “After a couple of false starts, the story-line, interplay of characters, and fall of emphasis grew clearer, and with each revision—there were many minor changes as the story grew in strength and in her own vision of it—the true stature of the novel became evident.” 
From these few lines, it is obvious that Go Set a Watchman is nothing more than an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. It may be the first submitted draft, or it may be one of the very early drafts which von Hohoff Torrey mentions. Should this be published? Certainly. It’s a rare opportunity to see behind the stage, and see the earliest form of one of the most famous, and one of the most beloved, novels of all time. Academia should be swooning; writers should be salivating, ready to learn the secrets of how to turn a “false start” into a novel famous across the world.
But a first draft—a lightly copyedited draft no less—would attract little attention. The two groups above are all that would buy it. The madwomen of the ivory tower, and the madmen of the written word. Regular people would have no use for it, and would keep exclusively to To Kill a Mockingbird. Which is a shame, a businessman would think, because the world would fight hand-over-fist to read a sequel to Mockingbird…
Let us turn to the back-of-the-book description. Does it clearly communicate that this is nothing more than a rejected draft? Does it over-step the bounds of truth, whispering the word “sequel”?
It does neither. It finds an uncomfortable middle-ground that alludes to both. It has a truthful start, affirming, “Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.” All of that is true, all of that is worth knowing, and yet, at the end. . .
“Exploring how the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are adjusting to the turbulent events transforming mid-1950s America, Go Set a Watchman casts a fascinating new light. . .” It is not, strictly speaking, a lie. But what is the obvious reading? That this is a full-blooded sequel, and everything contained in it is canon. Never mind that this is a book of discarded, early characterizations; never mind that the backstory doesn’t at all match the events of To Kill a Mockingbird; never mind each and every difference that marks this off so thoroughly from Mockingbird’s world. They are not different characters sharing names, they are characters in “adjustment”; it is not a world which was developed differently, no, it is a world shown in “new light.” It’s a disgusting degree of dishonesty, even if it’s never quite a lie.
If one were to insist, “Oh, that’s well and clear, no-one is confused…” Well, I hate to break it to you, but a simple Google search of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Sequel” returns more than 2,300,00 hits. People are seeing this as a sequel, and the one, true future of Mockingbird. Considering what Watchmen makes of Atticus, perhaps the early reviewers (the Wall Street Journal, for one) are right about this novel destroying the legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Only time will tell.
A) Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel. It is the rejected first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird
B) Lee Harper’s editor, Therese von Hohoff Torrey, considered Watchman the inchoate “false start” from which the “true stature” of Mockingbird grew. She did not consider it a sequel; she did not even consider it a stand-alone novel. It’s only an abandoned draft in dire need of growth.
C) Go Set a Watchman should have been published as such, and advertised honestly, much like early drafts of Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
D) For unknown motives all their own, HarperCollins has chosen to publish Go Set a Watchman as a sequel, if only by association. Thanks to the controversy of a bigoted Atticus and a dead Jem—to say nothing of the simple draw of the word “sequel” that so many people brandy about—the novel is already breaking pre-order records.
E) Publishing an early draft in such a way the public thinks it’s a sequel is misleading to readers, and a business practice that I refuse to support. Worryingly, it may permanently damage the reputation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
FINAL WORD: It's only worth reading if you're preparing a dissertation on To Kill a Mockingbird, or an author looking to learn the secrets of great writing. Collectors of literary curiosities might be interested in taking this from the library. No-one else should bother.
 Quoted in many places, but most readily available in “The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” (The New York Times).
 “Harper Lee’s New Book Breaks HarperCollins’ Preorder Record” (Newsweek)
I’m going to talk about it in the context of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and then as its own standalone.
In terms of comparison to Kill A Mockingbird…
Right away the first difference is the 3rd person omniscient narrator, but it still provides a high level of insight into the thoughts of the characters. This is an important distinction, as it changes the feel of the story and sets apart an important consideration; “To Kill a Mockingbird” has a flawed narrator, one who is a child during the events, even if it is a flashback. It is not that the 3rd person of “Go Set a Watchman” is cold, but it can account for the differences in perspective of how some of the major characters should be viewed.
There’s a pretty big surprise within the first 10 pages (I’m on a kindle), so you may want to brace yourself if you’re familiar with the primary characters from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Right away there is also a tone of the novel being set in a post-World War II era, one that borders on haunting memories, as well as the beginning of the sexual revolution and counter-culture.
There have been murmurs regarding this book and people not wanting to read it, mainly the portrayal of Atticus Finch, different from what people recall him in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” A key aspect to know, and still makes the book a MUST read, is the portrayal of Atticus Finch that readers were left with in, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is still the image that Jean Louise has of her father; her reaction and reconciliation of this imagery is the crux of the story. In fact, Atticus’s paternalism towards African Americans is heightened and reflected in the ideas and comments of the town, so it is actually not much of a character deviation that people will argue that it is.
The ending may seem to be a let down, but I would argue quite the opposite. Surprisingly, many of the issues addressed in the book; racism, states rights, and the law cumulate in reality, which is sometimes murky.
As its own book…
It’s an easy read, it’s not a short book, but one that is an easy pleasant read. Let me talk about the book in its own context, as almost a standalone. This is an intelligent book, one that has a plethora of historical and literary allusions, so many so that I worry that some of these may go under appreciated. These are especially applied in the context of the protagonist, her uncle, and her father; which is a nice, especially as the dialect is a wonderfully captured southern, which may convey ignorance to some. The writing is quite masterful in this regard. There are some fairly verbose sentences that could potentially benefit from editing, but nothing that is awkward.
Overall it’s a pretty good story and does a great job of blending the changing social and physical environment of a Post-World War II small southern town, especially as Jean Louise returns from her time spent in New York. Surprisingly, almost none of the story focuses on her experiences in New York city and its influence. Mostly there are reflections on the changes in the town of Maycomb itself, which is struggling with post World War II returnee’s and the growing independence of an African-American community. These changes are couched in the interplay between family members and old family friends.
The dialogue and humor between family members is superb, there were actually a few times where I laughed out loud. Even as the novel broaches its main conflict, there are interjections of compassionate reflection coupled with the changing landscape, especially as it pertains to race relations and how someone who has a wider perspective from the city understands race relations versus those who feel threatened by the growing autonomy of the African-American community. It’s actually quite timely and gives a pretty unique insight into one individual’s conflict with her family as it pertains to race.
*I edited my review to update for some grammar; sorry if there are still a few weird phrases.