Summer of Southern Women: Go Set a Watchman

I'm sad to see our second summer reading adventure draw to a close, but the Summer of Southern Women was a huge hit! I was happy to get to a few classics that had been on my list and we had some great discussions online and in the store. Just talking to people about books is what I love about being a bookseller, and I feel that our summer reading series allows us to do that on a heightened scale. And speaking of talking about books, it's time for Victoria and I to get down to what we thought about Go Set a Watchman.

M: Many of the people I have talked to about this novel have approached it in a different way. I very much approached it as an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird rather than a work that stood on its own or a sequel to that much loved and widely read novel. However, I definitely see the case for all three readings. Victoria, I know you had finished reading TKAM for the first time just before you started Watchman. Having such a recent relationship with the characters, I am definitely curious as to how you read this one.

V: I didn't exactly approach it in any particular way, honestly. I did keep in mind that it was technically a precursor to Mockingbird, so I guess you could say we read them in the same way. There was a lot about this book that was interesting from a written-pre-Mockingbird perspective, but unfortunately, I felt that the book held little interest for me other than that. As I mentioned at our Meetup and Discussion, I LOVED the chapters that flashed back to Scout's youth, but the rest of the book didn't much appeal to me. Before I read Mockingbird, I was interested in Watchman, but not anywhere near to the same extent as you and others who grew up with Mockingbird. But after finishing the book (and crying because that was a beautiful ending), I was incredibly nervous about starting Watchman. I'd heard not so great things about the development of Atticus Finch, and I didn't want the magic of Mockingbird to be ruined for me. Needless to say, I don't think Go Set a Watchman actually has that power; To Kill a Mockingbird is much too excellent of a book to be ruined so easily. But it did feel weirdly more like reading fanfiction of Mockingbird than a sequel/original story. What did you think, coming at the book from a more Mockingbird-friendly past?

M: Once I started the novel and realized that I wasn't going to enjoy it, the thing that kept me going was in looking for the pieces that became To Kill a Mockingbird. I mentioned on Twitter one line that fascinated me, "You mean the tomboy and the woman?" I see so much of the genesis of To Kill a Mockingbird's narrative voice in that line. Also in Jack's revelation that Scout and Jem were always like his own children - the idea is awkward and clunky in Watchman, but when the two become Boo's children in the later version of the novel it is poetic and deeply meaningful. If I were a writer I think reading Go Set a Watchman would give me hope; novels like To Kill a Mockingbird are not magic set down by writers of genius but work that has been finessed over time and many, many drafts.

You mentioned Atticus and there are a couple things I wanted to bring up on that front. I was not surprised to see Atticus' views on race. He reflected what most in his time and his area of privilege believed. He was still a "good person" (whatever that means) but he was incapable of seeing beyond his own views. Believing that he was a paragon of racial justice because he took the case of a black man wrongly accused of rape is fair for his own daughter but quite a bit too much for the broad readership of TKAM. I, for one, am glad we have been collectively disabused of that notion. I came across an op-titled "Now We Can Finally Say Goodbye to the White Savior Myth of Atticus" and after reading it was able to take a deeper view of Watchman. It does correct our false assumptions about Atticus by allowing us to see his deeply flawed behavior, but it also serves To Kill a Mockingbird in another way. Many have argued that TKAM shines a rose colored light on a dark time in America's past. I have never agreed with this interpretation of the novel, but if Go Set a Watchman does nothing else it assures the notion that To Kill a Mockingbird was meant as a harsh criticism of the systemic racism prevalent in the American south.

V: See Atticus' development in Watchman struck me less in a literary way and much more in a personal way. I felt a bit more like Scout in that I felt like someone I knew and looked up to had disappointed me. So I think there's room for it to be a good thing for the reasons you mentioned but also a disappointment because he's someone we felt we got to know who turned out to not be quite as much of a "good person" that we imagined. You're also right that the book sheds a much more realistic light on the writing process since it shows that well-loved classics like To Kill a Mockingbird were not simply created as they exist in the mind of a brilliant genius. Writing a book is hard work, much like digging for gold in that you have to sort through a lot of dirt to find the shiny and meaningful bits, and sometimes you don't find much and have to start over somewhere else. Overall I suppose I'm glad I read it, but I don't think it's something I'd ever be interested in reading again, to be honest. To Kill a Mockingbird, on the other hand, is something I look forward to reading again and again.

So that wraps up our Summer of Southern Women book club! We hope you've enjoyed reading these southern women authors with us, and we've certainly enjoyed talking about these books and hearing from you! Thanks for following along, and we can't wait to see you all back next summer!

Go Set a Watchman: A Novel By Harper Lee Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062409850
Availability: Backordered
Published: Harper - July 14th, 2015

#1 New York Times Bestseller

Go Set a Watchman is such an important book, perhaps the most important novel on race to come out of the white South in decades…
   — New York Times (Opinion Pages)