I'd pre-ordered Harper Lee's new (?) novel Go Set A Watchman
when Amazon first announced it was available. It arrived the afternoon of July 14, and by late that night I'd finished it. From the pre-publication hype, I knew two things: (1) It wasn't as good as To Kill A Mockingbird
, and (2) Atticus was revealed as a racist.
I'd already read the first chapter online, so I knew (Spoiler Alert!) Jem had died before Go Set a Watchman
For those not familiar with the multitude of media that gave away the plot: Scout, called by her grown-up name Jean Louise, returns home to Maycomb from New York City where she is now living and discovers that home
isn't what she thought it was. Her father, though elderly and suffering from arthritis, still goes to his law office daily but now has a young partner, Henry Clinton. Her brother Jem died from a sudden heart attack (but we know from TKAM that heart trouble ran in their mother's family). Her Aunt Alexandra, who'd added a streak of racism and hypocrisy to the book TKAM but was noon-existant in the movie, keeps house for Atticus and still tries to make a lady of Jean Louise. Calpurnia, now elderly, no longer works for the family. Jean Louise has trouble coping with what she learns about Atticus and Henry.
I've been mulling over what I thought of the book for over two weeks. There are a lot of layers to this book, and it could have used a bit more editorial polish. Despite its rough edges, though, I really enjoyed it. Like Mockingbird
has some wonderful descriptions of small town life and the people in it. Some of the flashbacks to Scout's childhood are laugh-out-loud funny—for instance, when Jen, Scout, and Dill play revival and when Scout has a wardrobe malfunction at her first formal dance.
Part of the charm of To Kill A Mockingbird
is that it's told in first person in the voice of a child, who will obviously see certain things and not see others. The third person viewpoint in Go Set a Watchman
puts distance between Scout and the reader but allows us to see more of other characters. And it allows us to gain a different perspective of Jean Louise who, though all grown up and living in the big city, is still very Scout-like. However, her childlike innocence and her belief in her father is shattered when she learns that he, like most of the white men in Maycomb, is a bigot.
I think the realization that Atticus was a man of his times was also shattering to a lot of critics and readers. But, those of us who were children in the 50s shouldn't have been surprised. We heard the same prejudice from our parents, our neighbors, and even some of our teachers. If a man was to be a success at his business back then, he had to conform to a town's standards. It's just the way things were.
When Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman,
she was old enough to realize what small town standards were. That many critics expected a book conceived and written in the late 50s to echo today's values and standards is unrealistic. Harper Lee, like many successful writers, wrote what she knew.
Boo Radley was missing from Watchman
, and I couldn't help but wonder what happened to him. After he came out, did he go back in? Perhaps in Watchman,
Boo Radley has come out—but this time he's Atticus.
Go Set a Watchman
reinforces the idea, used in so many other novels, that you can't go home again. And just maybe you shouldn't go there.
Some blog posts about the book worth reading are Eric Schnurer's: "Et Tu, Atticus
," Mark Lawson's review
in The Guardian
, and Randall Kennedy's New York Times review
. I pretty much agree with all three.
Labels: book review