‘Watchman’ sets different tone for Harper Lee fans at Fairfield read-a-thon
Jenny Gillis said she’d heard some of the early critiques of Harper Lee’s eagerly anticipated second novel, “Go Set a Watchman.” The book, according to some who previewed it, was not as well written as Lee’s iconic “To Kill a Mockingbird, and many were disturbed by its portrayal of Atticus Finch, a model of moral rectitude, as a racist.
But after listening to a procession of people read about eight chapters of the new book — actually finished in 1957 before the beloved “To Kill a Mockingbird” — Gillis said she thought it was, in fact, well written. If she didn’t have to go home to take care of chores and children, Gillis said she would have spent all of Tuesday at the Fairfield University Bookstore for the day-long read-a-thon marking the book’s publication.
“I’m extremely intrigued,” Gillis said. “I will be back later.”
The read-a-thon, which started at 10 a.m. Tuesday, was slated to continue until 6 p.m. Volunteers from the university and the community, as well as author Adam Dunn, took turns reading several pages at a time.
With the sounds of lattes and cappuccinos being made at the bookstore’s Starbucks Cafe in the background, those who were volunteering either read along or read ahead to their section of the novel to prepare for their turn.
The novel shifts back and forth between Jean Louise Finch’s adult life, and that of her childhood, when she was known to the people of Macomb, Ala., as Scout.
In a statement released by Lee’s publisher in February, Lee said she was told by her editors to rewrite “Go Set a Watchman” from Scout’s perspective and turn it into a coming-of-age tale. That rewrite became “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout.” As a first-time novelist, Lee said, “I did as I was told.”
After listening to the first several chapters, and doing her own reading, Board of Education member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly, said, “I can certainly see what the editors saw in these pages to say, ‘You need to write the prequel to this.”
As for indications that Atticus Finch turns out not to be quite the admirable man readers thought he was, “I’m holding onto my romantic version of the book,” Maxon-Kennelly said. “We’ll see if that gets destroyed.”
For Patricia Holder, who was in the read-a-thon audience, the new novel is a bit racier than “To Kill a Mockingbird.” For instance, when Jean Louise visits home to see an aging Atticus, she goes skinny dipping with childhood friend Henry, who now is her boyfriend and someone she contemplates marrying.
The knowledge of Atticus’ racial bias wasn’t as disturbing to Holder. “It was more realistic in that day and time,” Holder said, adding she had enjoyed the readings she heard from the new book.
Harper Lee is state Rep. Brenda Kupchick’s favorite author, so volunteering to take part in the read-a-thon attracted her interest. Kupchick said she tries to re-read “To Kill a Mockingbird” every summer.
Kupchick said she heard on the news the night before that this Atticus is not the same righteous Atticus fondly remembered from the first book.
“I’m a little bothered by it,” she said. “I guess sometimes our heroes aren’t always what we dream them to be.”
The new book comes “at an interesting time in our society,” said another reader, Jennifer Anderson, the vice president of marketing at Fairfield University.