I admit I was biased from the beginning because I wondered why an unrelated story would be published with the same characters as those in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I’d heard Harper Lee wrote GO SET A WATCHMAN first, but it still seemed strange. Plus, I’d heard that Atticus Finch was depicted in an unflattering way and was not the man of complete integrity that he is in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. That seemed almost blasphemous! Atticus Finch is one of my all-time favorite characters in all of literature— I love that man. But as I got further into GO SET A WATCHMAN, I settled down and was able to separate the characters in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD from the characters in GO SET A WATCHMAN. I began to recognize that this really was a different story, one with a different theme—one with some merit and power of its own, but most important, a forerunner to the acclaimed book I love.
I believe Harper Lee’s talent had to be evident to the publishing company when she first sent in this manuscript years ago, and I’m guessing that is why they suggested she try to rework it. I understand it was an editor who suggested she use a younger version of Scout to narrate the story. If this is true, then that astute editor deserves at least a little of the credit for the classic that followed.
Here are a couple of other suggestions I’m thinking this editor or other editors might have made after reading GO SET A WATCHMAN.
Show more and tell less. GO SET A WATCHMAN includes long discussions or arguments about race relations. In my opinion, these discussions are heavy-handed and preachy. In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD there is dialogue as well, but this time Harper Lee allowed the story itself to do most of the talking.
Let the scenes work as building blocks to develop the plot. I did not get the feeling that some of the scenes in GO SET A WATCHMAN were leading us anywhere. In fact, I kept wondering where on earth we were heading. That’s not to say they were boring. Several made me laugh out loud, and others were thought-provoking and even powerful, but the scenes, until the end at least, did not always seem necessary. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, on the other hand, is a much more cohesive book. The scenes build and support each other, leading us step by step to the powerful climax and denouement.
It could be that Harper Lee worked these things out on her own as TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD’s plot began to unfold for her. It could be that once she had her idea, the story began to tell itself, and the characters took over, helping her develop the story. This happens sometimes. However it happened, it worked.
Am I glad I read GO SET A WATCHMAN? As I mentioned above, it had some merit and good parts. It was thought-provoking. Mostly though, it was interesting and inspiring to see the huge difference between this first effort and Harper Lee’s subsequent effort. It confirms once again that what we view as rejections or failures in our lives really can become the proverbial stepping stones that lead us to greater success and excellence.