Harper Lee's 'Mockingbird' and 'Watchman' an intriguing comparison

Story highlights

  • Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" offers fresh material
  • "To Kill a Mockingbird" readers will recognize some characters
  • Plot feels contemporary at times
The following story about "Go Set a Watchman" contains spoilers. Repeat: The following story contains spoilers.

(CNN)When we last met Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, in Harper Lee's classic "To Kill a Mockingbird," she was 8 years old and had just been saved from an attack from "low-down skunk" Bob Ewell, thanks to the reclusive Boo Radley.

An older narrator -- Finch looking back on the Depression-era events of the novel -- reassesses her earlier harsh thoughts about Radley, whom she, her older brother Jem and friend Dill had considered a "malevolent phantom."
"Atticus was right," Scout thinks. "One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them."
    Readers may want to think about that line as they read Lee's "new" novel, "Go Set a Watchman," because standing in the shoes of some familiar characters may be uncomfortable. The following contains spoilers about "Go Set a Watchman."
    Originally an early version of "Mockingbird," the book was discovered last year, according to Lee's attorney, and is being released Tuesday. "Watchman" begins with a 26-year-old Jean Louise returning to midcentury Maycomb, Alabama, at the beginning of the civil rights era.
    Though an instant bestseller -- publisher HarperCollins has printed more than 2 million copies -- an early release of chapter 1 and a New York Times review caused concern among fans of Lee's gently moralistic "Mockingbird," which is a staple of high school reading lists and has sold more than 30 million copies.
    What's different?
    1. Atticus the racist
    In "Mockingbird," Atticus Finch, Scout's father, is a figure of quiet rectitude, an honorable lawyer and perhaps better father who somberly defends African-American Tom Robinson at Robinson's rape trial.
    "Mockingbird's" Atticus is so renowned that the ABA Journal headlined an article "The 25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers (Who Are Not Atticus Finch)."
    He tries to bear no ill will towards anybody, regardless of color. A member of a mob "is still a man." "I do my best to love everyone," he tells Scout in "Mockingbird."
    So it's a shock to encounter "Watchman's" Atticus, who serves on the local citizens' council and remembers his defense of Tom Robinson -- which, in "Watchman," concludes with a not guilty verdict -- with "an instinctive distaste." He's also a former Klan member, though he went "to find out exactly what men in town were behind the masks." (The Klan is alluded to in one "Mockingbird" line as a "political organization.")
    It's a challenge envisioning Gregory Peck -- who played Atticus in the 1962 "Mockingbird" movie -- playing this version of the attorney. He certainly would have given it a layer of darkness.
    However, this Atticus still loves his daughter. It's the question of whether his daughter can love him that forms the crux of the book.
    2. Jean Louise, fully grown
    "You want to grow up to be a lady, don't you?" Uncle Jack asked Scout in "Mockingbird."
    Her response: "Not particularly."
    The pants-wearing Jean Louise Finch of "Watchman" is more ladylike than the overalls-wearing Scout, but she still doesn't fit in with the demure women of Maycomb. She dislikes the town "Coffees" and obviously prefers the freedom of New York.
    "Good Lord, Aunty," she tells Atticus' sister, Alexandra, at one point. "Maycomb knows I didn't wear anything but overalls till I started having the Curse."
    The coming of age of "Watchman's" Jean Louise is starker. There are passages of her as a teenager, going on a date and defending her adopted Manhattan. Gone is the wonder of young Scout.
    3. Old characters, new roles
    "Mockingbird" fans will recognize some names, but the people have larger roles.
    Alexandra Finch Hancock, who moved in to the household in "Mockingbird" to help her brother Atticus, is a full-time member of the clan, thanks to her own husband's departure and her arthritic brother's need for assistance. However, she's still "an impossible woman" to an amused Atticus and a caustic Jean Louise.
    Uncle Jack, Atticus' physician younger brother, has a major role as the family explainer. He's a more approachable personality than Atticus. However, readers may not be fond of what he has to say.
    Jem is dead and is visited in flashback. Dill, the Truman Capote stand-in, is said to be in Italy but also appears in flashback. Calpurnia, the Finches' cook, has left the household though she still has a presence.
    The one completely unfamiliar character is Henry "Hank" Clinton, Jean Louise's old flame and now Atticus' assistant. In his love for her and his support for Atticus, he gets caught in the father-daughter conflict.
    4. A topical plot
    Though "Watchman" dates from about 1957, its plot -- pitting the locals' defense of the South's old ways against Jean Louise's distaste for them -- is surprisingly topical given the recent controversy over the Confederate flag.
    The N-word is used with some abandon and Uncle Jack, in particular, tries to explain the region to Jean Louise as "a separate nation" that fought the Civil War "to preserve their identity."
    "Watchman" also has a distinctly modern feel compared to the Depression-set "Mockingbird." The roads are now paved, there are mentions of television and the city is coping with the strivings of returning veterans. It's a far cry from the sleepy village of the '30s.
    5. A different tone
    Part of what made "Mockingbird" so distinctive was Lee's graceful, drily witty voice, at once childlike and knowing.
    "Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum," she writes of the women of 1930s Maycomb. Scout's teacher, Miss Caroline, "looked and smelled like a peppermint drop."
    That voice isn't lost in "Watchman," but one can see the impact of having a strong editor. According to The New York Times, when Lee turned the book into Lippincott, her publisher, editor Tay Hohoff worked closely with the author to recast the novel into "Mockingbird."
    The value of a good editor cannot be overstated. Whereas "Mockingbird" cleverly wove background into dialogue and hinted at exposition, "Watchman" spells things out more bluntly.
    At least twice, Jean Louise is described as "color blind," a metaphor practically blinking in neon. Her arguing with Atticus plays like '50s kitchen-sink drama.
    Intriguingly, some passages exist in "Mockingbird" in altered form. An extended flashback with Scout, Jem and Dill ended up as a notable scene in "Mockingbird."
    Other aspects of "Watchman" -- particularly events involving Henry -- were dropped altogether.
    As reviewers have already observed, the novel presents a more complex vision of the South -- one viewed through the jaded eyes of an adult, not the groping perceptions of a child.
    The two books, wrote the Guardian's Mark Lawson, make intriguing companions.
    "Teachers of American literature have been handed a fascinating potential course comparing and contrasting," he wrote.