Lee biographer: ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is a must-read

WASHINGTON — Charles Shields didn’t get much sleep as Monday turned into Tuesday. The author of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” Shields spent the night reading “Go Set a Watchman,” Lee’s second novel, released at midnight Tuesday, 55 years after her immortal “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

So what did he think?

“I wouldn’t know where to put it on the bookshelf if I were a bookstore owner,” Shields tells WTOP about the novel, set 20 years after the events of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

He says it straddles the line between young adult and adult fiction, told as it is from the viewpoint of a recently grown-up Scout Finch.

“Go Set a Watchman” was written before “To Kill a Mockingbird” and in fact “Mockingbird” was composed of childhood scenes excised from “Watchman.”

Shields calls it “highly autobiographical, as many first novels are. It almost has the flavor of a memoir about it,” adding that includes historically accurate facts in its setting.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was told through the first-person narration of Scout Finch, while “Watchman” is in third-person, but still carries Jean Louise’s (Scout’s birth name, which she uses in the later book) worldview.

Shields says that her path to adulthood was a rough one.

“I can’t remember seeing so much talk in a work of fiction about puberty, and loss of all the privileges that come with being a young prepubescent girl.”

Of course, the aspect of “Go Set a Watchman” that’s attracted the most attention is the fact that crusading lawyer Atticus Finch himself holds racist views. Shields says that’s what makes the new novel a must-read.

“It’s a portrait of where we have been and where we still are as a nation,” Shields says. “The casualness of racism in this book is very upsetting.”

For example, he says, the saddest remark in the book comes from Calpurnia, the black housemaid, who says to Jem and Scout, “Don’t drink coffee too early, or you’ll become black like me.”

“… What that says about the cruelty of racism speaks volumes,” Shields says.

And asked whether it’s possible for readers to simply ignore the new book and hold on to the other Atticus Finch they knew, Shields replied bluntly, “No, it isn’t.”

“‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ gives white Americans an easy pass. It makes us all sleep easier at night. Atticus is a man of such moral certitude that he walks like a Solomon through the pages of [“To Kill a Mockingbird”], and we can all rest assured that there are people like Atticus out there who are doing the right thing.”

He says the racism expressed by Atticus Finch gives the events of “To Kill a Mockingbird” added depth.

“He’s a man with prejudices … but he’s deeply conflicted about the treatment of black people, as all people of conscience would be. How he reconciles that, I don’t know. But that’s part of the dichotomy of racism.”

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2012 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He went to George Washington University as an undergraduate and is regularly surprised at the changes to the city since that faraway time.

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