Monday, July 20, 2015

Book Review: Go Set A Watchman

Today I had the privilege of finishing the novel Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. This makes only her second published novel, the first being the iconic To Kill A Mockingbird. Some have called Lee's initial TKAM a "great American novel." Despite it being her first and - until now - only book, she won nearly every literary prize there is and then some telling the story about a girl named Scout, her brother, and her lawyer father Atticus. The book discussed issues of race and justice and inequality at a time (1960) that these issues needed to be discussed. 55 years later and the United States is embroiled in another time of turbulent, violent, and complex discussions about race.

And, once again, Harper Lee is there with a novel whose prose perfectly sums up the issues at hand.


Watchman was Lee's first novel, if the stories are true, and it is about an adult named Jean Louise who used to go by the name Scout when she was a girl in Maycomb, Alabama. 20 years ago she was a child during a time in Maycomb's history when a historic judgment was handed down in a case involving her father. Those events are discussed in Mockingbird. It is in Watchman, however, that we finally meet the woman Scout grew to be. She is strong and independent and living in New York. She's gotten away from her small town and the small minds contained therein.

What is most striking to read in Lee's novel is the reverence with which Jean Louise treats her hometown and its residents. In her mind they are still the pristine, glistening figures of memory...if a bit older. They are the aunt who was kind and the neighbor who was compassionate. They are the memories of childhood that we all have. Perfect. Sublime. Cherished. Except, they're the memories of a child, a child who was not necessarily invited to every adult conversation, a child who had no concept quite yet of how the world functions.

They are my memories. Growing up in a town of 585, I was shocked as I grew to adulthood at how cordoned off that made our world. At how small "small" really was. At what that meant. I was shocked at the tiny hatreds we carry, the micro aggressions we inflict on one another. The words we use when describing women that we don't use about men. The hand gestures that are made to indicate that a guy might "swing that way". The language differences used when discussing the rambunctious weekend activities of the white football players as compared to how our young black men were most definitely heading for a life of crime for being at the same parties.

Lee's novel is as funny and relatable as Mockingbird ever was, except it gets to be more pointed in its message and comprehension as our protagonist is an adult capable of critical thinking. Instead of being about a given set of events - i.e. the trial in the previous novel - the book focuses on the idea of coming home. We all return home at some point: a class reunion, a holiday, a wedding, a funeral. We are faced with our old haunts and meeting the people we knew as fixed icons of memory. Juxtaposed, of course, against who these people are outside of the roles they played in our childhood.

The bank teller isn't just a person who exists behind the counter of the bank. They are real, with feelings and politics and opinions. The cousins and neighbors and uncles and, yes, even parents we had when we were children do not have to tiptoe around our tiny ears for fear of having age inappropriate conversations.

That is the reality our protagonist must face. Her friends, loved ones, and paragon of goodness father are...sadly...inflicted with the disease known as reality. They are products of living in Alabama in the mid-1900s and everything that means. Segregationist, racist, Christian conservatives that desperately want to cling to their way of life and are fighting tooth and nail to do so.

And here is where most book reviews stop. The reviewers simply cannot abide the idea that Atticus Finch might be racist, that he would be anything but pure as the driven snow does not compute. Error in the syntax. However, what these reviewers are missing is that they're committing the same fallacy that Scout, sorry, Jean Louise made. They assumed that the people of our childhood are fixed, unchanging statues. They were what we remember them to be and then just quietly went about the business of staying that way.

But there was much about our parents, our friends, our neighbors that we never knew as children. There were many sermons in our church that I spent more time coloring on paper than I did listening to the preacher, and it is in those moments of ignorance that Jean Louise is starting to fill in the blanks. She is our proxy in the discussion of facing our childhood without the rose colored glasses of youth and, instead, seeing people and situations for what they are.

The novel's heart lies in three conversations: the one with Dr. Finch (Jean Louise's uncle), the one with Hank (the man Jean Louise assumed she would marry one day), and the final argument with her father. It is in the progression of these conversations that Jean Louise must face the person she thought she was - a woman set on the path a girl chose for her based on incomplete data - with the adult she must be.

It is in the conversation with her uncle that she is told a line I think might very well serve as a thesis for the novel:

You confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man's heart and a man's failings.

And it is this line that many other reviewers are overlooking in their analysis of Go Set A Watchman. For, as I said, they too want Atticus, and the rest of childhood, to remain the immobile figures of yesterday waiting on us to come for a visit.

This novel's tale feels fresh, sadly. These are discussions I've had regarding the recent SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality and innumerable times over the past couple of years since the subject of racial inequality has come back to the forefront of national discussion. These are ideas and dialogues far too familiar when talking to my family and friends "back home". I think that is why this novel resonates so deeply with me.

I encourage you to pick up Go Set A Watchman. It's just over $16 on Amazon right now in Hardcover. It is one you'll want to add to your permanent collection and read again and again over the years.

I'll add this: do not read this right after you've read Mockingbird. There are some major and minor plot inconsistencies between the two novels that, if you're like me, will dissuade you from enjoying Watchman. Realize that this novel was 1) written first and 2) was locked away for the last half century nearly forgotten. Had Lee had the time, inclination, or desire I'm sure she would have edited the events to flow. However, I kind of like it as is. There are memories we have as children, things we are absolutely so sure happened or places we just know existed, that, as adults, we come to realize were fiction. I think the inconsistencies, themselves, help to disillusion Scout as she must finally face the woman that is Jean Louise.

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful review. I wasn't going to read it but now I will.
    CLM

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  2. I did enjoy reading GO SET A WATCHMAN, and I do think it makes a nice companion piece to MOCKINGBIRD. The issues raised here are the kinds of things people should be thinking about and talking about. I'm very glad this novel was published. I highly recommend it to anyone willing to be challenged.

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