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Go Set My Ambivalence: Thoughts On Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

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No one was surprised as I was when I heard the news in February: a new book was coming out by Harper Lee.

Not just any book, but a sequel to her most famous (and at the time only) book, To Kill a Mockingbird. I had to check five sources to make sure the story was true. It was. A new book featuring Scout as an adult was coming out in July, several days after the 55th anniversary of Mockingbird. The title was Go Set a Watchman. The title comes from Isaiah 21:6: For thus has the LORD said to me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he sees. I flashed on an unusually warm February day my freshman year of high school, my English teacher Mr. Atkinson passed out the latest book we were going to read that quarter. It was titled To Kill a Mockingbird. It had a plain black cover with red lettering. I remember looking at it with interest. I knew it had been made into a movie.

All freshmen had to read Mockingbird that spring. A freshman was easily identified if they were carrying that book.

We spent that winter and spring talking about the book, forty-five minutes a day. The first chapter we read aloud, then we talked about Scout, Atticus, and Jem. When I read something that I love, something that touches me, there are times I have to put the book down because the feelings are so overwhelming. I might cry, meditate on the characters, and then pick the book up again.

I did this a lot with Mockingbird.

I adored Scout, that beautiful child in overalls who knew more about life than so-called adults. I remember seeing the movie after I read the book. I took one look at Mary Badham and thought “Oh! It’s Scout!” Years later when I was writing an essay about Beverly Cleary, I was struck by how much Ramona and Scout looked alike. Then I thought why should I be surprised? Both girls had a temper that got the best of them, yet they always fought for justice, and what they thought was right.


Through the years, the book has become even more beloved. When news of the sequel hit, it was the literature news of the year, perhaps the decade. When I visited New York City in May, I had the chance to see Jodi Picoult. I asked Picoult what books she was looking forward to reading in the summer. She chose two: the latest Judy Blume, and Go Set a Watchman. Once I knew where I was moving to, I ordered the book to be sent to my new address.

The problem was this: thanks to several advance copies being sent to reviewers, spoilers leaked out several days before publication. Suddenly, I knew things about the book I didn’t want to know. I tried avoiding the spoilers. I didn’t read any reviews. I stopped going on Twitter. I did everything but put my hands on my ears and started singing “La la la la! La la la la la!” to Strauss’ “Blue Danube.” I didn’t want to hear them. But on Facebook, people started saying things. I wanted to avoid Facebook, but since my move Facebook has helped me feel less homesick.

But the status updates dampened my delight when GSAW came in my mailbox Tuesday afternoon.

I read the first chapter with high hopes. I can say this: Lee is at her best at details, especially with the first paragraph:

“Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.”

Great start! A creative writing teacher would approve. Lee showed, didn’t tell, and we want to know more right away what’s going on.

But here’s the deal: I can’t get into the story. I feel terrible saying this, but I can’t get into it. I want to get into it. I cannot tell you how much I want to get into this story and see how Scout is doing after all these years. But the thing is, she’s not Scout anymore. She’s Jean Louise, a woman who tells her aunt to pee in her hat and has an off/on beau.

She’s not the Scout I knew and loved.

The thing is, I didn’t want Scout to grow up. I wanted her to stay a child. She had that clear eyed view of life, that it was unfair and when something goes wrong, you say something about it. When she realized it was Boo that saved her and Jem from Bob Ewell, she didn’t hesitate in grabbing his hand and sitting outside for a spell.   I wanted to be like Holden in Catcher in the Rye: I wanted to grab her and stop her from growing up, from becoming phony.

So the book is sitting by my bed while I read a collection of Steve Almond’s essays.

I know I’ll read it.

But there’s part of me that wishes that Scout stayed forever young, forever the little girl in overalls, walking Boo Radley home.