Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Book Summary
From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

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 MockingbirdGo Set a Watchmanperfectly 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.

Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor and effortless precision--a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to an American classic.

Flo's Review we go. I've been putting off writing this one because I know I have a lot to say and I'm worried that I'll just end up rambling and not sharing good, coherent thoughts on this book. Because this book definitely made me think. But, as with any writing, the only way to get it going is to get going -- so here we go!

When I heard earlier this year that a new Harper Lee book was going to be released, I was excited, as many bibliophiles seemed to be. I put a hold on a library copy as soon as I possibly could. Then the book came out...and the reviews were not that great. There was talk that a bookstore was offering people refunds. All these details about how the story came to be published were being put forth. Honestly, I don't know what's true and what's not. (You can Google "how go set a watchman was found" on your own time to see several versions of the story.) A few things that stuck with me -- again, I don't know what's true and what's not, but you should understand that I carried these points with me into my reading:

1) Harper Lee didn't want this story to be published? 2) At her request, the story was not edited at all? 3) This was the first story she submitted to her editor back in the day. After reading it, Harper and her editor decided to go with a story where Jean Louise "Scout" Finch was younger and tell a story that is only alluded to in Go Set a Watchman. This is what became To Kill a Mockingbird.

I gave this story 2.5 out of 5 stars. Around 61 percent in, I was ready to be done with it. I made myself push through to the end. I'm glad I did, because the end had some gems -- and certainly some thought crystals -- in it. My main problem with the story is that I didn't feel like there was much of a plot. I'd say a good 70% of it happens in Jean Louise's head. It's her thinking. This would be a horrible movie because not that much happens at all. The main story line, the main conflict, is internal to Scout. I had a good friend prod me on this point. He kept asking me what the story was. I kept saying, "Scout's internal struggle." He even thought I wasn't understanding him, so he tried to explain to me how Mockingbird is about this trial and its impact on the people and the town. And what is Watchman about, he asked me again. "Scout's internal struggle about Atticus being a racist," I calmly explained again. There are things that happen but no big events.

You bet your bottom dollar I am not just going to drop a nugget about Atticus Finch being a racist and move on. We'll come back to that! But one more thing about the (lack of) plot first. There are numerous flashbacks in Watchman. A handful of stories involving Scout as a little girl, and key moments in her life involving other characters. One is with her brother Jim. One is with her boyfriend Hank. Another with Calpurnia, the colored woman who helped raise her. On a literary standpoint, I understand why these stories are there. They help establish the relationships with Scout so you can see how deep they are to her and therefore understand why the people's current viewpoints are so hard for her to stomach. I understand. But they didn't feel like that. They didn't read like that. They felt like filler. Pages and pages of random stories. I am writing a book right now and I feel like Harper Lee was at the point where I am now...not quite enough words to call this a full book. What to do? Oh! Add in lots of random childhood stories. I wrote myself a ton of notes for this review and one of the things I jotted down was: "The flashbacks are supposed to establish character and relationships, but they just felt like random bits added to create plot in a story that didn't have one and fill out the book."
So much to say, so much to say...
Okay, back to Atticus. I've seen some people try to treat this as spoiler, but everyone is talking about and I'd argue it's the main thing that has set people against this book: Atticus Finch is a racist. I don't even have a good place to start with this fact. It hurt my heart to read him say things like, "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world? ... Do you want your children going to a school that's been dragged down to accommodate Negro children? far in my experience, white is white and black's black. So far, I've not yet heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise."

So here's how the story goes: Jean Louise (Scout) is in her 20s and living in New York. She comes home to Maycomb, Alabama and sees some sort of brochure while cleaning house that causes her concern. She shows this brochure to her aunt who explains that it belongs to Atticus (her father) who got it a town meeting. Scout goes to the meeting, which is taking place in a main building downtown, and sits on an upper level where no one sees her. The things she hears at the meeting are very far from what she agrees with and believes in, and the rest of the book is her struggle with understanding how all of her loved ones can think this way -- especially Atticus. Jean Louise grew up loving her father to the point of hero worship, and is completely destroyed to learn that his views and hers on this subject do not line up.

My friend -- the same one who was asking about the plot earlier -- made an excellent point. The main struggle of the book is Jean Louise dealing with the fact that her father is not the unblemished, wholesome hero she believes him to be. For us, the reader in 2015, this is the struggle too. Just like Jean Louise, we've hero worshipped Atticus Finch. We've held him up on a pedestal. This is the Atticus Finch that we know and love from Mockingbird, and I believe this is the main reason why there has been such backlash against this story. I mean, in one example, a couple named their child Atticus because of his character in Mockingbird: and now, after Watchman, they have renamed him. (I am not making this up.) I put a poll on my Facebook page about whether I should actually read Watchman or not. One of the concerns that was mentioned by a few people was that Watchman might ruin Mockingbird for them. Another couple of friends told me to read it, but to read it as its own story, apart from Mockingbird. This is kind of what I did, if only that I haven't read Mockingbird since high school. While I remember the general premise, I don't remember all the characters or the details. (I do want to go back and re-read it now.)

And, on an aside, can I give mad props to Harper and her editor? If the story of how Mockingbird came to be out of Watchman is true, then they took what was literally mentioned only twice in Watchman -- no more than 2 or 3 sentences -- and decided that this should be the book. And look how it turned out! The whole plot of the story changed. Because -- as much as people are upset that Atticus has these views in Watchman -- this is not the main narrative of the story. Atticus' beliefs and actions are a device for the main narrative, which is Jean Louise re-examining her loved ones and if she fits into Maycomb anymore.

If you're scared about spoilers, skip these next few paragraphs:
The last thing I am going to say about Atticus happens in the last two chapters of the book. As I mentioned before, I am glad I stuck with this book to the end because the scene where Dr. Finch is explaining what has happened to Jean Louise is the story. I like the way it was written. I like that Dr. Finch spells it out for her, and for us readers, in black and white (no pun intended!) so we can understand the book. And such great imagery!

"You'd eventually figure this out for yourself," she heard him say. "But let me speed it up for you. You've had a busy day. It's bearable, Jean Louise, because you are your own person now...
Every man's island, Jean Louise, every man's watchman, is his conscience. There is not such thing as a collective conscious. you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father's. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man's heart, and a man's failings... You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers. When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the very antithesis of his conscience -- your conscience -- you literally could not stand it. It made you physically ill. Life became hell on earth for you. You had to kill youself, or he had to kill you to get you functioning as a separate entity." Kill myself. Kill him. I had to kill him to live.... "You talk like you've known this a long time. You--" "I have. So's your father. We wondered, sometimes, when your conscience and his would part company and over what." Dr. Finch smiled. "Well, we know now."

Wow. That's deep. "You had to kill youself, or he had to kill you to get you functioning as a separate entity." Jean Louise had just literally yelled at him, insulted him, tore him down. And he didn't really try to reason with her or fight back. As Dr. Finch (who is Jean Louise's uncle and Atticus' brother) explains, "He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being." So circling back to us, the readers, in 2015. If we don't read the two stories separately, they affect each other. Mockingbird affects Watchman, because now our conquering hero, our Atticus Finch, is a mere flawed man. Watchman affects Mockingbird because as we read this new story, we can identify more with Jean Louise. Had we never know the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird, this man in Watchman might still affect us -- but nowhere near what he does now.

Here's another one of my problems with Watchman. At the end, Jean Louise is her own person. She forgives Atticus for being only human, because he is only human. That's all fine. But it kind of felt to me like, "Well, he's a racist, but not super racist, so all good! Happy ending! And Maycomb is too, but it's not totally bad, so all good! Happy ending!" I mean, I guess that's part of it. Dr. Finch tries to convince Jean Louise to stay in town by telling her that everyone does not have that mindset and that the town needs her to help them. I guess we're at the end and Harper Lee's trying to say that everyone has room to grow? The newly born Jean Louise. The 72-year-old Atticus Finch. I hope so. I choose to take that positive out of it.

Welcome back, cautious folks!
I could say so much more about this book. I haven't even talked about the other characters: Hank, Calpurnia, Dr. Finch. But this review is already crazy long and I would really, really love to hear your comments on this book and the controversy around it and everything. Please share your thoughts and reactions in the comments.


  1. I haven't read this book yet. I don't remember To Kill a Mockingbird even though I read it in junior high. I was waiting to read this book until after re-reading Mockingbird. But now after reading your review, I think maybe I should read them the other way around. I'd like to read this as the first draft and then read Mockingbird to see the finished product.

  2. Yes, yes and yes I wanted Harper Lee to take Scout's realization of her racist father and use it to self-reflect and notice her own racist ways. Had she done that it would have saved the book for me even with the rambling stories.