Friday, August 07, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

I don't know if you've heard or not, but Harper Lee's book Go Set A Watchman was released this summer. There's been a bit of controversy—as to whether or not the book should have been published, as to Lee's state of mind, as to the quality of the writing and the racially-charged themes.

If you're one of the people who absolutely want nothing to do with the book? This post is not for you. If you've read it? Join the discussion. If it's on your TBR pile? Be warned that there will be spoilers. If you publicly decry the book but secretly can't get enough of the discussion? Go ahead read on. You know you want to, and I won't tell.

After all, I was one of you at first. I heard the dust-up, the insistence that this is not what Harper Lee wanted, that this book was never meant to be seen. And I never meant to read it! Not if it was going to take my beloved Mockingbird and make, well, a mockery of it.

I don't know if that's true. I do know that there is a chance she changed her mind, that she wanted us all to see these characters as she first intended, that maybe she was reacting to the world we live in now and saw that the themes that picked at her brain, that moved her to write about them, are still in play today.

For all I know, she never wrote a book after Mockingbird because this is the one that was standing in the way of her other words.

First, please know that this is not a perfectly polished work. Wherein some believe that Mockingbird was too aggressively edited, I think that Watchman suffered the opposite fate. A good editor could have polished up the bits that required it, the rookie mistakes that a first time novelist makes in shifting tone and voice. All that aside, I'm happy to have read this book.

Watchman shows us an adult Jean Louise, a "moved from her small southern town to a big northern city" 20-something who is still figuring out what the world should be. Moving away from home, even when it feels like you're fleeing that place, can be very difficult. Leaving a place you hate to love is jarring, and there is definitely a love/hate relationship with Maycomb for Scout.

The story starts as she returns to Maycomb, and returns to Atticus, who is no longer the larger than life super hero she once considered him. He's more human. He's a man. He's got weaknesses along with strengths, and the reality of him is a far cry from the image in Scout's head. In all of our heads, really.

Losing my own father a few years ago, seeing Atticus as a human being and not just an idealized superhero was necessary for me. It provided closure, a full circle moment that made sense. When we make heroes of mortals, we choose not to see the parts that might scare us or offend us, but every person has these parts. And we can't know a person unless we know all the parts.

So many things in Maycomb are different—even the house Jean Louise comes home to. We're told that years previous, the Finch home on Main Street was torn down in the name of progress. Yet, when Jean Louise feels untethered, it's to the site of that original house (now an ice cream shop owned by a Cunninham) to find her center. Love that.

I had to put the book aside after I started reading when I came to the first mention of Jem. I did not hear any spoilers on this and was taken aback by his fate. It took me a bit to come to terms with that. But when I picked back up and started reading again, I was blessed with flashbacks of events featuring Jem and adding to the tapestry of his and Scout's relationship.

We caught up with all the characters of Maycomb—save for Boo. When asked if she was Scout in Mockingbird, Lee famously replied that she was Boo. Maybe that's why we don't get any of him in Watchman, he was created as a vehicle to help bring Mockingbird to life. Still, I missed him.

There are of course issues of race addressed. I'm still not clear where Atticus lies in this, but I'm sure he was not alone in this time and in this place. Atticus in Watchman is the personification of a good, white, southern gentleman who is trying his best to wrap his beliefs around the changing world.

Through Henry, Wathcman points out Scout's white privilege in the aftermath of their night swimming episode—he reminds her that people in Maycomb will always refer to him as trash (as indeed does her Aunt Alexandra) and to her as a Finch. The beliefs in Maycomb, and in the south in general, run deep and aren't easily rerouted. The Alabama of Watchman is still figuring things out.

When Scout visits Calpurnia, to get that motherly comfort she craved from the warm and loving mother figure in her life, she's forced to see that their relationship was never balanced. She's forced to accept that Calpurnia, for all her loving and giving ways, raised Scout as her own because that was her job, while probably at the same time forsaking her own children.

Scout's family and town remind her that it's one thing to be fighting for civil rights when you're a step removed from it—like living in New York—but it's a completely different thing when you're knee deep in the tide you're struggling to change.

We are not in the same world today, but some of the same themes apply. I can't help but believe that Lee did bless the release of this book to help address some of the issues that she still viewed playing out around our country.

Controversy or no, Go Set A Watchman now occupies a proud place on my bookshelf.


  1. "For all I know, she never wrote a book after Mockingbird because this is the one that was standing in the way of her other words." Love this.
    I've been on the fence about whether to read it or not. After reading this wonderful review, I'm not sure I need to. Good words, my friend.

    1. Thank you, my friend. Your blessing means the world to me. It was a tough read but I highly recommend it.

  2. After reading the excerpt in the WSJ and some of the first reviews, I'd decided not to read this book. Then my book club, much to my disappointment, selected it for October. Thanks to your review, I'm now looking forward to reading it. Even if it doesn't measure up to TKaM, it sounds as if it has some great themes and points for discussion.

    1. I really encourage it. I hope you enjoy it and can't wait to hear your thoughts on it!

  3. I feel so conflicted about this, but really enjoyed your review.

    1. Thanks, Jen. I know it was a bit of a controversy, but I feel strongly about this one.

  4. I was also on the fence about this one but you have helped me decide I should read it. Great review.