My rating: 4 of 5 stars
And that’s ok.
However, when paired together, the effect is magical.
I read To Kill a Mockingbird within a couple of hours spread out over a few days. I was hooked on it for the sake of the story and a love of the characters. It was quite a bit different with Go Set a Watchman, but if you give it time you will notice that as you near the end the pages turn much faster and your heart beats in similar pace.
We’ve been told that Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, although it reads as such, but is, in fact, the original story that Harper Lee intended to publish. I’m thankful that both were released and in the order which occurred. Having read both novels so closely together I was able to pick out the tiny bits of story in Go Set a Watchman that turned into To Kill a Mockingbird and I’m blown away that she created a second, completely new novel with only characters and small references to connect the two. That alone deserves respect and warrants giving the second book a thorough chance.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, we are introduced to a man of noble character who is not only a loving, understanding father figure, but also a lawyer willing to represent a doomed negro boy accused of raping a white girl in the 1930’s south. We praise him for his courage and compassion, his commitment to equality and teaching his children to be loving rather than judgmental. Atticus Finch eases the guilt in our minds about racial tension because he was standing proof that not all white men were bigoted members of the KKK. We grew attached to him and when the story ended we expelled a sigh of relief and felt warm all over because he didn’t disappoint us.
And then, in Go Set a Watchman, we learn otherwise. As a collective community the veil of his piousness is lifted and his Godlike stature crumbles. Alongside Jean Louise, readers are rocked out of the safety of Atticus’s shadow and our hearts are broken by the revelation that he is merely a man who is subject to the attitude of the mob. Rather than being all that we’ve decided he was we find that all he has done has been out of this need for justice and order. He upholds the law because it is the law, not because he feels compelled to protect those in need. And we rebel against him just like our heroine.
Her fire becomes our fire and every word she spews represents our own feelings. We’ve been deceived and we want revenge. But if we can see through the emotionalism of the situation and be logical we will see that Atticus hasn’t changed at all and is still worthy of our admiration. We experience an awakening of consciousness just as she does. Unfortunately for us, we don’t have an Uncle Jack to smack us back to reality, offer us liquor as a reward, and walk us through fully understanding what has happened. So it is easy for readers to set this book down disenchanted and disgruntled. But just as Jean Louise was able to overcome this, so can we.
If we didn’t have To Kill a Mockingbird to convince us of his righteousness, if we didn’t grow up with Scout and Jem and Dill this effect could never have been achieved. If Go Set a Watchman were a stand alone novel it would fall flat and, although telling of the era where racial equality was blooming, yet not bloomed, readers would leave with a “that’s nice” experience and nothing more. But we do have both and never before have I been able to experience something side-by-side with a character such as this. As a writer it makes me jealous; as a reader it leaves me satisfied.
Atticus Finch earned a place as my second favorite literary character because of To Kill a Mockingbird, falling just behind Jane Eyre on that list. And his place hasn’t shifted since reading Go Set a Watchman. If you catch the lesson of this novel, you’ll do just fine.