REVIEW BY CHADWICK MILLS
**This review was written by one of our readers and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Ol’ Curiosities and Book Shoppe or its staff.
I have learned to never say “never.” For example, I had said Harper Lee would never write another novel. I’d read her only one published, the Pulitzer Prize and national treasure, at least once a year since assigned in high school. Within the past year, news surfaced that a hidden novel was discovered by Lee’s attorney after the death of Harper Lee’s sister and longtime protector, Alice Lee. The conspiracy theories, mystery, and occult motives had just begun –and I anticipate they will never be laid to rest. I could have cared less what particulars surrounded this discovery. All I wanted was another book by Harper Lee. The announcement of the publication of the new book is the closest I have ever come to an actual miracle.
Watchman: The Talk About the New Book
The book was only released early to a select few, with massive security measures taken to protect it. It was published, printed and released in its totality with only very minor editing. Those who had the privilege of reading it early leaked the nature of the book– and as much as I voraciously read commentary—I found that the discussion began to shape the book’s message/meaning and in a negative manner; I felt that it was unfair. Watchman was a disappointment and threatened Lee’s legacy, TKAM’s merit, and most troubling, the pristine character of Atticus Finch.
Since reading To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, it has been my favorite novel, and Harper Lee has been my favorite author. I have never read another literary piece as frequently as TKAM. Every time I did read it, it brought me back to innocence, reminded me of the importance of people I love(d), and strengthened the bedrock of those that had the most influence towards developing my character. The hold TKAM has on my life remains a puzzle to me.
Watchman: Interpreting the Novel
The interpretation of the new book is certainly not going to be homogenous. Literary critics and academicians are going to “tell” others what Watchman is all about and delve into Lee’s psyche, but because Lee is likely never to discuss this book in a way as to explain the context and meaning, it will forever be left to subjective analysis and conclusions. I find that unsettling, but quite poetic. Even if every other person had the same opinion, I know for certain mine will differ from the majority.
Yes, I am biased. Yes, I wanted to read between the lines. Yes, I wanted to protect and preserve the characters I love. Yes, I wanted to buffer Lee’s legacy and TKAM’s reputation. And yes, I did not want my concept of these characters to change. I guess, I still wanted to reside in Neverland and fly with Peter Pan forever, never grow old, and never lose what I love. But isn’t that what we all want?
Watchman cannot be analyzed in isolation. It must be integrated with TKAM and coupled with the time Lee wrote it and where Lee was in her professional and personal life. However,, the two are forcibly different. For instance, the account of Tom Robinson’s trial is inconsistent between the novels. This alone is enough to provide caution and warning to readers. In Watchman, it’s said that Atticus achieved an acquittal for “a colored boy on a rape charge”, but in TKAM, Robinson was a married man and found guilty by the all-white jury, and later shot and killed reportedly he was attempting an escape. As difficult as it may be to accept and admit, these books are literary fiction. The characters are fictitious. We do not have to forfeit TKAM’s merit or impact, nor the qualities of its characters. TKAM cannot be retracted or dissolved based on Watchman.
Watchman: No Mockingbird
Reading Watchman was a hard adjustment. TKAM is in first person, as Scout narrates. In Watchman, I had to stop and go back to remind myself that the novel was written in third person. I know that may sound trivial, but I frequently, especially the first half of the book, confused the omniscient narrator with Scout. I did not like the string of fragmented phrases separated by a series of “……”, to represent a jargon of comments or interconnected thoughts – verbal diarrhea to me. I found them interruptive – I cannot believe I just critiqued Lee’s style, but that ought to lend some credibility to my review! I can’t help but feel blasphemous and guilty.
While I meandered through pages and imagery, I found myself falling in love with the moments Watchman detailed of earlier and newly revealed escapades between Dill, Jem and Scout. I couldn’t stop laughing at the prayer revival and baptism the three recreated in Miss Rachel’s fishpond. Then, realized tears were rolling down my face and my side began to hurt from laughing when Jean-Louise’s falsies were displaced in non-anatomical position at the school dance with Hank. I was bathed in warm security of young love when Jean-Louise and Hank were caught swimming in the pond in the wee hours, and how the typical small town gossip “edited” the account. A scouring Aunt branded them with sinful, shameful skinny dipping, chastising and reprimanding such behavior. Yet, Atticus realizes and accepts the realities and biologic forces of first love. His remark, “I hope you weren’t doing the backstroke,” both practical and nonjudgmental. That is Atticus. How can we hate Atticus? How?
More humor, typical of Lee and reminiscent of TKAM, is centered around the consequences resulting from lack of sex education and how if left to our own imaginations, and the tutelage of others just as stupid, Jean-Louise arrives at the impression that one can become pregnant by a French kiss. These were the elements I loved in Watchman, because they were adjunctive to TKAM–familiar, endearing, and unifying.
Watchman is about maturation and the discovery of one’s self. The realization that our idols and heroes are human, just like us. The disappointment when we abandon belief in Santa and the tooth fairy brings a new sort of freedom. I think it even tries to detail the nidus of racism in all of us, much of which starts with fear.
I believe Watchman was a cathartic moment for Lee. Lee was an unknown struggling want-to-be-author, living in NYC carrying elements and experiences from a small southern town. The latter alone, plopped down in NYC, is enough to bring about considerable struggle. I can somewhat relate. That experience will either stimulate you or destroy you. You find yourself administering your own litmus tests to yourself. Beliefs, opinions, ideas, etc…. will be challenged. It is painful. Some of the notions you’ve held, you will find yourself disagreeing with, some you find are true, and some provide the catalyst to learn, grow and develop your own. The world changes from black and white, and morphs into more shades of Martha Stewart greys – and the complexities of people and life become more of a blur.
Many of us have experienced this. Returning to one’s small hometown and finding the homes, streets, and schools seem quite a bit smaller than before. Those matters of “life-and-death”- embarrassing moments you had sworn you’d never survive, in retrospect are often, at best, now trivial and mundane. Would Ashlyn Pond ever think I was anything more than cute? How would survive that C+ in Ms. Chavis’ Honor’s Physical Science class? How about the “U” in conduct (unsatisfactory) and repeated remark “talks too much”? Would I ever get into college? Would I ever look older than 12 or be taller than 5’2”? Would I grow hair on my chest and have a facial shadow before I graduated? Were those questions silly? Oh yes, but then they seemed to be at the center of life’s turmoil.
If Watchman does anything, it brings us to that moment, the crossroads where the child and adult are no longer one. Yes, some transition painlessly and probably unknowingly, but for others, and Scout, the transition is not so benign. So, troubled, Scout vows she never wants to see or hear from any of her family or the town where she grew up. She is running away–far away never to return. It is a moment of powerlessness where the only defense is to run because one CANNOT change her roots or where she grew up. I believe many people spend the rest of their lives beneath a façade, trying to convince themselves and others that they aren’t associated with a past or place they wish to never be again.
Watchman is what I would call literary evolution. It was written in a time where social acceptability, frame of mind, challenges, and ugliness were different than the social norm. Granted, there are common elements between generations, but the degrees of acceptability are different.
I predict that in three or four decades, that generation will likely look back with embarrassment wondering how we could be so wrong and touting how far they have come. It’s what we’ve done, too. Don’t we look back and find certain political and social norms of times past contentious and unfair?
In my life, I have seen the roles of women change. Women now hold positions of leadership: political, corporate, and religious. My grandmother remembered when woman could not vote, and when she did, she recounted voting how she “was told.” What happened to biblical dogma and instruction that “woman should remain silent” and all of the ridiculous rules and regulations of how men and woman are to dress? No jewelry, no makeup, no cutting hair, etc… 30-40 years ago, that was an accepted practice by many –it was even preached. Now women, and I mean church-going-Bible-believing woman, have disregarded those instructions. Some may call this “cherry picking,” but I call it sensibility.
How about interracial marriages? African-Americans holding office? The brutality and incorrigible treatment of people who are homosexual? The unfair and cruel branding of people – simply because they are different? I still hear remarks labeling “all gays pedophiles” with the goal and mission of preying on children. They are called immoral sexual deviants, mistakes of nature, abhorred and abominations to our creator, and some even believe they should be stoned and killed.
I hate to rain on such a respectable and valiant tirade, but some of the finest teachers that instructed me and people I have ever met and known happened to be these “freaks of nature.” Many now see respectable, productive members of society, open to display their love for family, the longing and desire to be parents, and to show publically their commitment and love to one other person. They hold office, are accomplished athletes, scientists, and humanitarians. In an essay Lee penned that “love is love,” and it could not be said any better.
To me, the most poignant message from Watchman is the discovery that those who are revered, respected above all, people as close to a god as possible –are just human. That sad fact is painful and can leave you devastated. I have crossed that bridge and it nearly crippled me, but people are people. People are human. This fact transcends races, geography, distance, and phenotypes; it is the one common trait, whether we like it or not, that connects us all. We can run from that, we can vow that we never want to see or hear of it again, we can deny and fabricate a world so clever that we and others may believe that we are a new and different species, better than the ones we came from, and maybe better than the ones we evolve into. But no degree of denial or distance will change this. We are human. We err. We are connected.
We grew up. Watchman made us grow up. It made me appreciate and covet the drive and eagerness to “learn” and “learn more.”–to change in hopes of becoming better, to leave behind morsels that sustain and entice those trailing me. Our flaws will make those that follow even better.
Atticus remains my hero. He momentarily may hold values and beliefs that I know to be wrong, but what he did possess were the building blocks that perpetuate the goodness and fortitude of mankind. The traits that Scout inherited and brought her into her own person, by her own admission, had come from Atticus. The ugliness in him and Maycomb County formed her just as much as the good.
Lastly, Watchman gave me an embrace from my mother. One I thought I would never feel again. I will not share these personal thoughts and feelings. They are only mine and hers, but Watchman reconnected me to that moment – the point where the world, or what I thought was the world, lost a simple definition and where cause-and-effect was palpable.
One of the most prevailing admonishments from Atticus was when he told Scout “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” Atticus first told this to Scout when she was a child in TKAM. In Watchman, it is now time for her to apply that to Atticus, and put herself in his shoes. Perhaps it is time for the readers to do that very same thing. For we might just realize we have lost nothing in Harper Lee, or the merit of TKAM, and especially, that we will not lose the realistic divinity that Atticus will forever provide.
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