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opinion | Joni Rodgers

‘Go Set a Watchman’ is a novel we can love

Eden Sherman checked out Harper Lee’s new book, “Go Set a Watchman,” in a Florida bookstore.
Eden Sherman checked out Harper Lee’s new book, “Go Set a Watchman,” in a Florida bookstore.Getty Images

Like most people who love “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I came skeptically to “Go Set a Watchman.” Would it be a buried treasure or a hijacked rough draft? Turns out, it’s neither. And both. I loved it for exactly what it is: a brilliantly written, underedited, beautiful Southern novel about a young woman who discovers her father is not a god.

And I’m angry that some pompous, patriarchal publisher back in the day quashed it and told her to instead write a brilliantly written, carefully edited, beautiful Southern novel about a young woman who discovers her father is a god.

In some ways, I understand why an editor in New York encouraged Lee to bend her considerable talent to the concept of “Mockingbird,” latching onto a fairly insignificant anecdote and reframing it as the main plot thrust. This change neatly swapped the dynamics of the two main characters, making the star of the book a man instead of a young woman.

The result was a novel about race relations instead of the smaller, quieter conflict between father and daughter. It set up clear villains and heroes, clear good and evils, whereas “Watchman” leads us into a humid Southern swamp of human frailty and beauty, stereotypes sinking beneath the surface. In this respect, I think “Watchman” actually stands above “Mockingbird” in a way many Southerners will love and many Northerners will never understand.

There have been a lot of knee-jerk reactions to the racist rhetoric that comes out of Atticus, sharply contrasting with the high-minded monologues in “Mockingbird.” But it’s worth noting that Harper Lee’s original Southern hick jury in “Watchman” found Tom Robinson (the black man unjustly accused of rape) not guilty. The Southern hick jury in “Mockingbird” found him guilty — and that’s a major plot point. New York has its ideas about what the South is and who Southerners are, and “Mockingbird” facilitates those stereotypes, while “Watchman” explores the complexities of the Southern — and human — heart.

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Also worth noting: Atticus’s father fought for the South in the Civil War. Is it not possible for people to cringe at the racist legacy clearly imprinted on him and still give him credit for a giant leap forward in ideology? And then can’t we celebrate the additional leap forward for Scout without condemning her father? Because he made her the woman she became. That’s our job as parents: to raise up an exponentially better generation who will improve on the world while raising up an exponentially better generation to replace themselves.

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Setting aside the suspicious circumstances of the magical appearance of “Watchman” (and the buckets of money involved for the publisher and agent), I also understand why Harper Lee might want us to have this novel now, at this point in her life. She is now where old Atticus is in “Watchman”: an elderly person who is sick and tired of carrying the burden of our hero worship. And perhaps sick and tired of seeing Atticus deified as an icon of egalitarianism.

So she takes our Gregory Peck daddy figure from us, the same way he was taken away from Scout. We need to get over that, in order to know and love the truly told, deeply dimensional human beings in this book.

As an editor, I want to go back in time, embrace this young author, and tell her: “This is a wonderful book. And you must write another one and another and another, and every one of them should say exactly what you want to say.”

I love both of Harper Lee’s beautiful novels. I’m mourning for the dozen or so she could have and should have written.

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Joni Rodgers is a New York Times bestselling author and editor who lives in Houston, Texas. She can be found at www.jonirodgers.com or @JoniRodgers.

Related:

Review: In ‘Watchman,’ Atticus Finch is deeply flawed

Does Atticus Finch’s racist turn in new novel spoil the name?