More than fifty copies of Go Set a Watchman lined the shelves at my public library’s book club section. They were constantly circulating, displayed in the new book section, and asked about at the information desk.
More than fifty years ago, this was To Kill a Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird has lined the shelves in many high school students’ lockers over the years. My 59-year old father remembers reading this classic in high school, and I remember reading it only seven years ago in my ninth grade literature class.
Many To Kill a Mockingbird fans’ and critics’ excitement for the publication of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman last summer was crushed with controversy and differences in comparison To Kill a Mockingbird. Despite this, fans of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird should read Go Set a Watchman because books change, characters change, and themes change. Change is inevitable, and despite our human nature’s resistance to it, change can help readers consider Harper Lee’s books differently, highlighting their complexity.
Published in July of 2015 but written in the mid-1950s before the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is a story about 20-something Jean Louise Finch visiting her aging father in Maycomb, Mississippi, from her current home in New York. She discovers how the town, her father, and other Maycomb residents have changed since she was a young girl. Jean Louise struggles to grasp everything and she is frustrated with her father and how he has become racist, the opposite of how she remembers him growing up.
In the midst of this plot, Jean Louise and her childhood friend Henry search for and struggle with love. She confides in him, explaining her thoughts about her father and how he is different. Henry asks to marry her and their relationship is a subplot to Jean Louise’s journey of discovery in Maycomb and her family.
I am one of those To Kill a Mockingbird fans who did not know how to handle this story: I do not want to see Atticus as an aging racist man with negative views of African Americans. It is difficult for me to see Scout as a 26-year-old woman living in New York who searches for love and her involvement and interest in civil rights has declined from when she was a young girl. I, like millions of Harper Lee’s fans, did not want my favorite characters to change.
In addition to the internal controversy of the change in the characters, Go Set a Watchman’s publication is also controversial. Harper Lee always said she did not want to publish another book, and she often refused interviews in general about her work. Lee is currently an 89-year-old hearing and sight-impaired stroke victim living in a nursing home.
Many believe she was taken advantage of by Tonja Carter, Lee’s new protector since Lee’s sister Alice passed away in November. Carter exposed Go Set a Watchman to Harper- Collins, seizing the “perfect moment” to get Lee’s book published.
Amidst all of these questions, the most significant question may be, “Does Go Set a Watchman ruin To Kill a Mockingbird?” The majority of readers would answer, “Yes.” However, I want to ask you to piece all of this together differently: please do not be afraid to accept change. Read the book. Enjoy it, wrestle with it and reflect upon it.
Accepting change does not mean that we as readers and Harper Lee fans have to agree with the way she changed the characters. Accepting change does not mean that we have to applaud the morally questionable method of publication of Go Set a Watchman. Instead, accepting change means acknowledging the truth: Harper Lee is the same author who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and she has the right as the author to create and change her characters and story in Go Set a Watchman.
Additionally, we need to understand that we view fictional characters as real people and real people change. Harper Lee’s characters are not static. Change is a fact of life, and although we often resist change, it still happens. Change can open the ways in which we see the world, and more specifically, how we view Harper Lee and her two famous works of fiction.
Not only will my father’s generation, my own generation, and those in between be able to go back to school day memories reading, discussing and cherishing To Kill a Mockingbird, but I believe my children and grandchildren will be blessed with the opportunity to appreciate both of Harper Lee’s novels. Instead of not knowing what to do with change except resorting to critiquing it, let’s embrace change and open our eyes to what Lee’s works truly are.
–Kristy Coser, contributing writer