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Saturday, July 18, 2015

'Go Set a Watchman' by Harper Lee


From the BLURB:

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 ageing 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 Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past – a journey that can be guided only by one's own 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, humour 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 a classic.


••••• 

‘Go Set a Watchman’ is Harper Lee’s first draft and “parent” novel to her 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

I liked it. Quite a lot actually. And my liking the book worried me a bit at first. I thought for sure that I was simply being incapable of an unbiased opinion where Harper Lee is concerned. I found a comment left on a Wall Street Journal article about the discovery of the manuscript, and I can concede that it may well apply to me in many ways; “The author and book have been given an exalted status well beyond the quality of the book. People have projected their own opinions about race onto the book.” 

So take that concession as you will – I may well be an unreliable reviewer. 
You have been warned. 

A brief summary of the book, if you’ve been living under a rock ... While (GSAW) was written as the first draft that eventually would turn into ‘Mockingbird’, it is in fact set in Mockingbird’s future when ‘Scout’ – now, Jean Louise – returns to Maycomb, Alabama for her sixth trip home since boarding at a girl’s college in Georgia and then moving to New York. Jean Louise is twenty-six, Atticus is an old man in his 70s and riddled with rheumatoid arthritis to the point that his sister, Alexandra, has had to move in with him to help him cope.

Atticus is still practicing law, and his partner at the firm is young man Henry ‘Hank’ Clinton – orphaned at a young age, he was an old friend of Jem’s, whom Jean Louise long had a crush on and has been dating for a while now, but is putting off his many attempts at engagement. 

Early on in the book we learn (devastatingly) that Jem died rather suddenly at the age Jean Louise is now. Later we learn the reason;

 Jean Graham Finch had brought to the family the heart that killed her son twenty-two years later on the sidewalk in front of his father’s office.

The book is set in Jean Louise’s annual two-week trip home, when she has her eyes opened to Maycomb’s unchanging ways … and while the rest of the nation may be far more progressive and responsive as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, Maycomb – in fact, the entire South – lags behind in its insistence to keep the ‘colored’ population in their place. 

Jean Louise is particularly horrified to learn that Atticus and Hank share the views of the white populace in town – in particular, Atticus’s abhorrence to NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The novel deals with Jean Louise’s shattered worldview, her loss of the father she had built up in mind and memory;
The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.

‘Go Set a Watchman’ may not speak as profoundly as ‘Mockingbird’ does on racism, but I won’t let that subtract from my high opinion of the novel. Besides, while she may not deal as deftly with the matter of racism, I do think Lee shares some profound thoughts on racists. A particular triumph of ‘Mockingbird’ was that Lee was able to discern the difference; like in the character of Mayella Ewell, and how she is unraveled to reveal a scared, ignorant girl under her father’s boot-heel. I always found Lee’s portrayal of Mayella to be a more sympathetic one than even some reader’s would allow, and that she encapsulates the very notion that racism is bred from ignorance.

GSAW is told in third-person, where ‘Mockingbird’ was first (though told from Jean Louise looking back at several summers of her youth). I was initially a little thrown not to be inside of Scout’s head … but I finally got to thinking that GSAW’s third-person more easily allows readers to be as disenchanted by Atticus’s turn. That may not have been Lee’s intention as this was her first draft before ‘Mockingbird’ existed, but it came across that way to me at least. It is sad and almost hurtful to read Atticus has turned out this way, but that makes it all the more impacting. And by this point, Atticus has become such a literary hero – such a pillar of justice – that the one removed third-person more easily allows readers to take this hurt on for ourselves, rather than just for how it hurts Jean Louise.

I also finished reading GSAW, having recently been moved to tears by Scottish MP Mhairi Black’s maiden speech to Parliament … it is sad, but may well be the case that Atticus was more weathercock than signpost; “Weathercocks will spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them, no matter what principle they have to compromise. And then there are signposts, which stand true and tall and principled. They point in one direction and they say, ‘This is the way to a better society and it is my job to convince you why.’”

One aspect of the novel that I read and particularly enjoyed was Jean Louise’s feminism, or rather – Harper Lee’s. Jean Louise muses on her time growing up;

… and wondered who else in Maycomb still remembered Scout Finch, juvenile desperado, hell raiser extraordinary.

Scout Finch as a rough-and-tumble tomboy was a statement in itself in ‘Mockingbird’, and Lee continues to make similar ones with Jean Louise as a twenty-six year-old woman. There’s a particularly delicious scene at The Coffee (when Aunt Alexandra invites all of Jean Louise’s old schoolgirl classmates round for coffee and gossip) – Jean Louise archly notes the various camps of women, from those who are newly married to the recent mothers. She is withering and wary of them all, and it is a scene that rings like something out of Kathryn Stockett’s ‘The Help’ (oh, I would love Jean Louise to meet Skeeter!), particularly for how many of the women spout their husbands’ views of ‘negroes’ as lore.

Then there’s the fact that Jean Louise is a holdout to Hank’s proposals of marriage. He teases her for not being a more complacent woman who agrees with everything he says … and while it is teasing, there’s a subversion going on too. I will say that Jean Louise and Hank’s exchanges offer some of Lee’s clunkiest dialogue – a lot of “baby” and whimsy that’s hard to slog through at times – but there are still charmingly dissenting statements to be found there.

The feminist push-back in me even wonders if a lot of the criticsresounding dismissal of GSAW stems from the fact that a big focus of the novel is on Jean Louise’s rejection of settling into marriage and babies, and the overall feminist subversion … it is very much a "woman's story". 

Though I would never have thought it before, GSAW got me thinking that there is something rather masculine about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. The two quiet heroes of the book are men – Atticus and Boo Radley – and Tom Robinson acts, along with Boo, as a symbol of the book’s underlying message. Scout and Jem are very pointedly devoid of much feminine company, since their mother died when Scout was two. There is even a rape trial at the heart of the book, concerning a woman who is very clearly lying. ‘Mockingbird’ is in many ways, a very masculine fare … but then again, most books deemed “classics” or universally praised tend to be. Natalie Kon-yu recently wrote for The Conversation, about how few award-winning novels are actually about women’s stories – the successful literary books tend to feature male characters, and male-centric stories. ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is very pointedly not that.

This book concerns Jean Louise’s disillusionment of her father, her rejection of feminine ideals (mentions of her Aunt Alexandra’s bone corset sort of wallop you over the head for symbolism, but they’re there nonetheless), and turning down a man’s many proposals of marriage. At one point, Aunt Alexandra even muses to Jean Louise;

 Men in this age have turned the Other Woman into a psychiatrist’s couch, and at far less expense, too.

Heck, Jean Louise even tells a long flashback story of getting her ‘curse’ (period) and discovering that a girl in her class was sent to an orphanage when it was discovered that her sister had gotten pregnant by the girl’s father. GSAW certainly has a stronger cast of women than ‘Mockingbird’, if only for Aunt Alexandra being on the scene … and the Finch’s old housekeeper, Calpurnia, features in one of the book’s strongest, most heartbreaking scenes (Jean Louise also pointedly acknowledges that she was raised by a white man and black woman –  again, this felt like Stockett’s ‘The Help’ was somewhat prophetic).

GSAW is far from perfect. One of my favourite articles read in connection to the book was in the New York Times, about Harper Lee’s editor Tay Hohoff – which reveals how much Lee benefitted from her editor’s mentorship and guidance. It’s a great read for offering us a glimpse into this fascinating partnership between editor and author – and got me thinking that the same way ‘Mockingbird’ inspired many to the law, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ may well ignite interest in a lot of would-be editors. It sure is fun to try and imagine where some threads in GSAW carried Lee into what would become ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and they can mostly be found in Jean Louise’s recollecting the lazy days of her childhood …

“What made you think of Dill?” she asked. 
“I don’t know. Just thought of him.” 
“You never liked him, did you?” 
Henry smiled. “I was jealous of him. He had you and Jem to himself all summer long, while I had to go home the day school was out. There was nobody at home to fool around with.” 
She was silent. Time stopped, shifted, and went lazily in reverse. Somehow, then, it was always summer. Hank was down at his mother’s and unavailable, and Jem had to make do with his younger sister for company. The days were long, Jem was eleven, and the patterns was set:

But you can definitely tell that Lee was improved by Hohoff’s suggestions and patient guidance as GSAW turned into ‘Mockingbird’. Her dialogue needed improving, particularly the Southern-drawl, long-way-round writing that’s so distinctive in ‘Mockingbird’ but was sometimes bloated in here;

 With the same suddenness that a barbarous boy yanks the larva of an ant lion from its hole to leave it struggling in the sun, Jean Louise was snatched from her quiet realm and left alone to protect her sensitive epidermis as best she could … 

I rather loved ‘Go Set a Watchman’ anyway. There are more than a few flashes of the writer Harper Lee would turn out to be, and some paragraphs and lines cut the reader right to the bone;

 The knife hit deep, suddenly; “Jean Louise, your brother worried about your thoughtlessness until the day he died!” 
It was raining softly on his grave now, in the hot evening. You never said it, you never even thought it; if you’d thought it you’d have said it. You were like that. 
Rest well, Jem.

True, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is no ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ nor is it better. It’s different, as are all of the surviving characters – some for better, some for worse. I think I mostly enjoyed having new words from Harper Lee – more so than from Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch, since we’re not in her head for this portion of the journey. I really did enjoy ‘Go Set a Watchman’ though; a book, I would argue, more about feminism than racism … it’s also about a different sort of ‘paradise lost’ than the journey away from childhood, but is instead about needing to hold long-held beliefs up to the light for scrutiny.

Thank you, Harper Lee – it was a privilege to read you for the first time again, and always.


4/5



2 comments:

  1. I've bookmarked your review for when I finally do get around to reading it and formulating my own thoughts and opinions about it. There's so much running around out there, I've been trying to avoid all of it so I can decide for myself whether or not it'll be well received by me. I'm reading TKAM at the moment, so it may be a while until I actually come back. From the few paragraphs I read it seems like you have lots of interesting things to talk about!

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    Replies
    1. Oh, I can't wait to hear what you think :)

      It was very hard to block out all the rhetoric and reviews when I was reading and then writing my own. And I was pretty surprised to read how strongly people reacted negatively to the book ... keen to know your thoughts!

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