book review

Thoughts on Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman review
Go Set a Watchman cover

The publication of Go Set a Watchman is a pretty significant one in the scheme of things, and I was able to read it the week it came out. Being a book professional, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about the book.

First and foremost, I want to make one thing abundantly clear: Go Set a Watchman is not a sequelCalling it a sequel is the not-entirely-correct elevator pitch one says to sell the book. (And overhearing a book seller say that to customer kinda made my blood boil a little. Not something to get too worked up about, sure, but still an irritation for me.) Go Set a Watchman is the initial submission Harper Lee made to her publisher, and was not intended to be published 50 odd years ago. It follows some of the characters we met in To Kill a Mockingbird, but there are inconsistencies that stem from revisions and the fact that this book wasn’t going to be published, so why should Harper Lee worry about correcting it.

The way I chose to approach it is thus: It is entirely separate from To Kill a Mockingbird. These are not exactly the same characters we were introduced to before. These are versions of characters that were developed in a different fashion. I do love the story of TKAM, I just wanted to keep this one apart from that book, and look at it in more of an academic sense.

I couldn’t help but think that it was a bit like if someone from the estate of Harper Lee had authorized this as a sequel (Donald McCaig and his Gone With the Wind sequels come to mind). Sequels like that shift perceptions of well-loved characters to have “adapt” to more modern sensibilities and come up with some slightly fantastical plot lines and introduce new characters. Naturally that’s not exactly the case, but it was another way to frame it.

The opening chapters are absolutely DELIGHTFUL. Full of the charm of To Kill a Mockingbird and a really sweet and comforting return to Maycomb. Of course, this is before the big Atticus reveals are made, but just the same, I was giggling my way through the first few chapters. It totally sucked me in. I would have loved it if it even if it had remained a light-hearted story of Jean Louise returning to Alabama from New York for her annual visit and running into typical Small Town South characters and engage in a few meaningful escapades that means she learns something new about herself and returns to New York with a different heart towards her hometown. Or ultimately decides to stay. It would have made for a cute novel, but Harper Lee does not write that simply. No, no — Jean Louise returns home and makes a realization that changes her whole world so much she becomes physically ill and doesn’t know how to move forward.

Ultimately, I felt the way the story played out of how Jean Louise makes these discoveries, deals with them, and how it is reconciled in the end was effective, but needed a little more editorial guidance to really make it zing. Of course, I may come to another conclusion upon a reread. This is definitely a book I will reread at some future date. Likely not as many times as I have or will read To Kill a Mockingbird, but it will be reread. And considering this was only lightly edited from Lee’s original manuscript submission, it’s impressive from a writing perspective.

The part that stood out the most for me was the chapter of Jean Louise’s Coffee that Aunt Alexandra hosts for her during her visit. I think MANY of us have experienced something akin to this. The way Lee wrote the disconnected conversations happening around the room, and Jean Louise’s internal monologue as she listens and then participates in it is fantastic and depressing. People you’ve known your whole life, or are a part of the community, and you can’t stand them, and their history and current events tidbits are all wrong and you can’t even begin to correct them because they wouldn’t believe you anyway because you lived in the CITY or went to college (or lived in the “Mission Field” for some LDS folks) and you obviously just don’t know how it really is. It’s SO AGGRAVATING and discouraging and makes you want to get outta Dodge as fast as possible. Jean Louise’s frustration with the small-minded and misguided women around her hit close to home, and that chapter in and of itself is a real great piece of writing.

The flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood are priceless. Those reminded me of Cheaper By the Dozen hi-jinks and I can definitely see how an editor would say, these are so wonderful, why don’t you write about the kids instead? And the rest is history, really. It was effective storytelling to have Scout tell about life in the 30s in Alabama, and about a few significant events in her life and the town’s history. Those events are barely mentioned in Go Set a Watchman – I can’t recall the Radleys being mentioned at all, and if they were it was in passing.

The ending didn’t entirely sit right with me. The overall feeling of the ending is unsettling, and I think motivations and explanations could have been made clearer with a good editor. (But from what’s been presented, it’s still debatable whether or not Harper Lee really had a hand in allowing this to be published in the first place.) Some have said they would have preferred this be released as an annotated academic book, and I wonder if that may actually happen. Will Lee leave enough of her papers to be used to contribute to an annotated version? It will certainly be dissected for the foreseeable future by many academics and after the initial buzz dies down we might get some productive dialogue going. In the meantime, it’s interesting to me to have this book released as a major publication simply because more people will read it for the very reason. The novel brings up a lot of very uncomfortable questions that are pretty relevant to what’s going on in our society now – even more astounding that it was written almost 60 years ago* – and maybe we can appropriately bring it into the discussion at large of race and inequality. So far my usual book review outlets are preoccupied with the fact that Atticus is not the white knight we know him from To Kill a Mockingbird and not much else is being said… yet.

It’s a good book and I’m glad I read it, and I’m anticipating reading many more in depth and academic reviews and studies of the book moving forward.

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*I’m hosting a To Kill a Mockingbird book and film discussion at my library at the end of the month, so I rewatched the film after many years. I watched it only days after the Charleston church shooting, so having that in my mind while I watched contributed to me sobbing through most of the film. It takes place in the 30s and was written in the 50s, and it is still sadly relevant to our society.

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