http://artsblog.dallasnews.com/2015/07/how-a-watchman-reviewer-thought-past-feeling-betrayed-by-an-old-friend.html/

NOTE: Dallas Morning News books editor Michael Merschel asked me to contribute a DMN blog post today, discussing the process of reviewing Go Set a Watchman.  He posted it alongside the review on today’s dallasnews.com.

Former staff writer, regular critic and longtime To Kill a Mockingbird fan Joyce Sáenz Harris wrote our review of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Here’s how her thoughts about the book evolved: 

US cover of "Go Set a Watchman"

US cover of “Go Set a Watchman”

When Mike Merschel asked me to review Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I must admit I got ridiculously giddy. This was the best assignment a book reviewer could ask for in 2015, and I was thrilled to be one of the very few people who would be privileged to read Lee’s new novel before publication day.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in Reader’s Digest Condensed Book form when I was 11, just a few years after it was published and won the 1961 Pulitzer for fiction. Later, of course, I would read and re-read the complete novel many times, and I can remember illustrating scenes from TKAM in pencil drawings for my high-school English class. The Academy Award-winning 1962 film also became an enduring favorite at some point.

So when the UPS deliveryman brought the book to my door last Thursday morning, and I signed for the advance review copy, I simply sat down and started reading. Less than 12 hours later, I had finished all 247 pages, and the book was littered with yellow Post-It paper strips covered with scribbled notes.

Who knew Harper Lee is a Gilbert & Sullivan fan? …NO, cousin Francis Hancock was Aunt Alexandra’s grandson, not her son! …No mention of Boo or the Radleys at all? …What is this rape trial that Atticus WON? …Jem died of a heart attack like their mother did; “they said it ran in her family.” …Dill is in Italy, just like Truman Capote was. …Harper Lee invented “What Would Atticus Do?” long before the T-shirts and bumper stickers of today.

In the second half of the book, however, I had to stop reading and digest what was happening before I could finish.

What the what? Atticus Finch, that secular saint, heading up the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council? Tolerating the speech of white supremacists and arguing with Jean Louise about whether she really wants black people integrated into white Southern society, voting in mass, holding public office? I felt very uncomfortable as I continued reading, as if I had been betrayed by an old friend, rather than by a fictional character in a favorite book.

But after finishing Watchman, I put on my reviewer’s hat and thought not like a fan, but like a writer, like an editor. Eventually, I realized that it is a novelist’s prerogative to mess with readers’ minds. To make us think, to make us doubt our cherished preconceptions. Their job is not to foster our pleasant illusions, but to present us with some sort of truth.

For Harper Lee, Watchman was her truth, because this Atticus is the father she knew as an adult. A.C. Lee, the author’s father and the courtly Southern lawyer on whom she modeled Atticus Finch, was in fact a segregationist, according to her biographer, Charles J. Shields.

I finally understood why Watchman became a discarded first draft, and why Mockingbird was written instead. Lee’s editors wanted a different, more uplifting story with a white-knight father figure standing tall for justice. They knew what people like to read, and the story of an adult daughter wrestling with the fact that her dad is an old segregationist wasn’t exactly best-seller material for a first-time novelist. No, far better to write the story of a child learning about life’s tragic unfairness, about the loss of innocence mitigated by the surety of a father’s love, wisdom and goodness.

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Now I realized what it must have cost Harper Lee to write this portrait of her father — and how relieved she must have been to revert, in Mockingbird, to the Atticus who was the father she adored as a child, rather than the aging segregationist with whom she argued about the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board decision as an adult. She wouldn’t have wanted this portrait published during his lifetime, not really. And A.C. Lee’s heart would have been crushed by it, if it had been.

Instead, A.C.’s heart grew a few sizes after Mockingbird was published. In a case of “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” he began to act like a real-life Atticus the Good, campaigning for redistricting to protect black voters before he died in April 1962.

Now, if you wish, you can certainly avoid reading Go Set a Watchman altogether, or wait until you’re feeling calmer about this whole thing. Or you can decide to believe that this is Uncanny Valley Atticus, as Jeff Weiss puts it, in an alternate universe.

Or you can settle in to read and accept Watchman, with all of its many flaws, timeline inconsistencies and continuity errors, as part of the Mockingbird canon. You can laugh out loud at more of Scout’s youthful escapades, learn further salacious details of her cousin Joshua Singleton St. Clair, the insane poet, and at last find out the name of Scout and Jem’s mother. You can discover who Jem took to his prom and what kind of wardrobe malfunction Scout suffered there. You can even witness a version of “I am Spartacus” played out at Maycomb County High School.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote songs of innocence, but first she wrote songs of experience. With Go Set a Watchman, open-minded Mockingbird fans can now have both. To me, it just makes Lee’s legacy that much more interesting, complex and timely. I hope her faithful readers will hear what she has to teach us, because it is still worth learning, even if we find it rather hard to read.

Lee is a lifelong Methodist, as am I. One thing we learned in Sunday school is: There is only one perfect Father, and he is the one in heaven.

His name is not Atticus Finch.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas. Read her review of Go Set a Watchman here

 

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