by Beth Cronk, Litchfield head librarian
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee has had the literary world in an uproar recently. The sequel to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird was announced in February to tremendous public astonishment, and the story of its discovery has been a bit mysterious. Lee wrote it first, before Mockingbird, and it was entirely reworked into her classic novel when the publisher wanted something different. Then the manuscript was apparently lost for 55 years.
The book itself was released July 14, to considerable debate. Many of the reviews are negative, with some saying that reading it will forever tarnish your view of the original classic and its hero. Others say that it’s a complex look at racial relations at the time it was written, and at how adult perspective can change our childhood idealization of people we love. At the least it’s an interesting look at how Lee came to create her classic.
Several reviewers have expressed sadness that Lee never wrote other books with the talent it displays. One comment I thought was particularly good came from Library Journal: there are now two Atticus Finches, because reworked characters are a natural part of the writing process, and what we’re reading now is source material.
All of this made me think about whether other sequels to classic novels have been published and whether they have had any success. Of course, there are many that have been written by different authors, many of those decades or even a century or more later. But how often do the authors themselves dare to publish a follow-up to a great, successful novel that is not conceived as a series?
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, sequel to The Hobbit. I would say that it’s a clearly better literary work than the original, with far greater complexity and depth, although I have read reviews that disagree. In any case, it was written and edited to be a finished novel about fifteen years after The Hobbit, not at all the same situation as Go Set a Watchman. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings rank among the best-selling books of all time.
The Giver is a modern classic children’s book by Lois Lowry. It won the Newbery Medal in 1994. Many have read it, but the three sequels aren’t as well-known, although they are good books. Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son are loosely-related sequels that tie together in the last book. We have all of these books at the Litchfield library.
Little Women is another classic that is widely read, but you may not know that Louisa May Alcott wrote two sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Some people enjoy them, but they don’t have the same spark as the first. One essay I read on Little Men said that this is because Jo is really not the same character as in the first book. We have a new volume at the Litchfield library that includes all three books.
The Starlight Barking, Dodie Smith’s sequel to One Hundred and One Dalmatians; Closing Time, Joseph Heller’s sequel to Catch-22; Son of Rosemary, Ira Levin’s sequel to Rosemary’s Baby; and That Was Then, This Is Now, S.E. Hinton’s sequel to The Outsiders. All of these have produced some mixed reviews, if not the media frenzy Watchman has. But then none of these original novels were To Kill a Mockingbird.
Go Set a Watchman does have a waiting list, but copies were going out to our customers the day after it came out. Since Pioneerland Library System has many copies, the waiting list will move quickly. Let us know if you’d like to reserve a copy and see for yourself what all the commotion is about.