Harper Lee passed away at the age of 89. I wanted to write a post for a while regarding the release of Go Set a Watchman, but I now just reflect on my relationship with her work in general.
Unlike many of my peers, I read To Kill a Mockingbird on my own when I was 13. It wasn’t assigned reading in school for me until high school, but I saw that some classmates in another class were required to read it, and I decided to read it. I honestly knew nothing about the book or the story at the time, but I knew it won a Pulitzer Prize. I fell in love with the book right away, identifying with Scout in more ways than one (e.g., being smart, being a tomboy). Mockingbird is fiction, but the issues of race and segregation made me come face-to-face with white privilege, even if I didn’t completely comprehend it at the time. The book helped me in developing my complex Southern identify that I have–embrace the good, but recognize (and never forget) the bad.
To Kill a Mockingbird became one of my favorite books of all-time, and I would still place it there today (even after reading Go Set a Watchman). I’ve re-read the book in high school and a couple of times since then. I also do enjoy the movie adaptation. I even named a spider plant I had in college after Atticus Finch (my roommate named her plant in lieu of having no pets in the dorms. I decided to do the same). Like many, I was frustrated that Harper Lee never wrote any other books, but perhaps that decision made Mockingbird more special in the end.
Given the controversy around Go Set a Watchman (both its release and its content), it doesn’t count as a “second book” to me. It was a draft of an earlier version of Mockingbird, and the editors left the inconsistencies in there. It still has her style and voice with familiar characters; however, the length of the novel also reflects the amount of time passed. Mockingbird took place over the course over a few years and Watchman took place over a few days. You have to approach this book knowing its brevity and its limitations–it isn’t a fully fleshed out and edited novel. That said, there are truly moving and gripping scenes in Go Set a Watchman that are made more powerful because of the special place Mockingbird has in my heart.
The passing of Harper Lee is sad, but she did live a full life, choosing to live a life away from the spotlight. I will always appreciate her gift to the world, even if it is just one amazing piece of American literature.