Friday, July 17, 2015

Book Review: "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman Harper Lee
Published: July 14, 2015
ISBN: 9780062409850
Genre: Historical Fiction (written as a Contemporary Work)
Source: Personal Copy (Kobo)
Highly Recommended (if you've read To Kill a Mockingbird and know the history around this title)

Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch - 'Scout' - returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise's homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past - a journey that can be guided only by one's conscience. 

My Thoughts:
Let me start by saying that this was the most unique reading experience that I've ever had.  It wasn't that there was anything especially unusual about the story, but the circumstances around the book are one-of-a-kind.

It is important to know the context of this novel--this was the first book that Harper Lee wrote.  It was rejected by the publishers with a note that she should explore the childhood of the main character, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch.  Lee took that note and wrote another book, To Kill a Mockingbird.  This manuscript was filed....until something happened.  Things get murky from that point and it isn't really clear when this manuscript was "discovered"and if Harper Lee actually consented to the publication.

So, it is set after To Kill a Mockingbird, but it isn't truly a sequel.  It is more of a story about an alternate universe Maycomb, Alabama and its famous literary inhabitants.  The first question that came to my mind was why was this book rejected in the first place?  After reading it, I can think of a couple reasons.  For one thing, it might have pushed the boundaries of what was considered "acceptable" in mainstream fiction in the 50s.  There are references to child molestation, someone is compared to Hitler, a lot of discussion about racial issues, and a scene involving an unfortunate pair of falsies (and that last one is excellent!).  I have a feeling that some of the things this book touched on may have been a bit too "hot" for a publisher to take on.

There is also the problem that, plot-wise, this book is a bit light.  The plot isn't "bad," but it isn't really novel-sized.  This plot could have been expressed in a short story or a novella, although most of the very entertaining, but non-essential, scenes would have had to be cut.  I would love to know what someone who has never read To Kill a Mockingbird would think of this because, for me, this is really dependent on To Kill a Mockingbird.

There were also some stylistic things that don't show up in To Kill a Mockingbird that may not have gone over well--mostly things where the narration switches from third-person to first-person stream-of-consciousness.  I don't recall this happening in To Kill a Mockingbird and I'll admit that I was a little confused by it at times.

The original suggestion that Lee should write about Scout's childhood does make sense.  We all know about the wonderfully precocious Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, but I must tell you that the Jean Louise of this book is freaking awesome.  I can't think of another character of that age in literature who I have enjoyed as much as I did Jean Louise (who I will call Scout from here on out--because she will always be Scout in my mind).  She's opinionated and brash and knows how to make a situation deliciously uncomfortable.  Also, this Scout is a natural evolution of the Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird.  There are a lot of flashback scenes to her childhood and they read as if they could have come out TKAM.

And, now, the elephant in the living room--Atticus.  Unless you have no access to the internet (in which case, you wouldn't be reading this review) you know that Atticus is not what we expect in this book.  I would like to take a moment to call every outlet (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Mashable, The Guardian, and others!) who felt that they should spoil this jerks.  You are all jerks.  There, I said it.

But it is an important part of this book.  Is Atticus a racist?  By, 2015 standards, yes.  By Scout's standards, yes.  By mid-1950's standards?  Maybe not.  I mean, this was a contemporary novel when it was written, and, by 2015 standards, some of the things that Scout says are racist as well.  (And to be fair, neither is as racist as Ma Ingalls....)

I'm not excusing any of this, but I think that it is important to place it in history.  I think that modern readers should be upset about the racism here--not in a "how dare you" sort of way, but in a "we were wrong" sort of way.  I think that a reader needs to be able to separate the myth of Atticus Finch from the literary Atticus Finch.  I have to say that because what I'm about to say next may not sit well with some people:  In my mind, I can see that the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird can become the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman.

I'm not saying that Atticus was racist in TKAM--but what I'm saying is that he could have been.  Remember, TKAM was told through the eyes of a child who idolized her father.  In Go Set a Watchman, that child has grown up and lived on her own in another part of the country.

Should you read this book as a sequel or as an unrelated book?  I don't think you can read it as a completely unrelated book--there is just too much overlap between the two.  But I don't know that you can read it as a strict sequel either as there are things that just don't add up.  For example, the trial of Tom Robinson is alluded to in passing in this book, but the details-and outcome--were different,  I guess you have to find where you are comfortable between the two options and read it from that point.  I will say, though, that this book does seem dependent on To Kill a Mockingbird.  However, I am a person who has read TKAM several times, so I already had that at the forefront of my mind going into Go Set a Watchman.

I'm going to close with what I thought was so profound about this book--and that is that it was published when it was.  The issues this book deals with are still with us.  The same arguments that are used against Civil Right in this book are used to support flying the Confederate flag today.  Things that are said about African Americans are still said about minorities.  It is amazing how little has changed in 50+ years.

I am immensely glad to have read this book (and I truly hope that Harper Lee DID give consent to its publication).  The experience in reading it is something I will never experience again and it takes the issues that are raised in To Kill a Mockingbird and brings it home.

I was not solicited for this review and I received no compensation for this post.

Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee

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