Okay I read it! Here’s what I think of Go Set a Watchman

If Go Set A Watchman hadn’t been written by Harper Lee, I don’t guess I would recommend it because it isn’t all that good a read. But it was written by Harper Lee, and we know that if she had chosen to revise and edit it, she was capable of producing a brilliant snapshot of the south in the years immediately following the historic Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Supreme Court decision.

It’s been widely reported that Atticus Finch displays a racist side in this novel, but less has been made of the fact that Jean Louise herself agrees with her father on many, though not all of his opinions. There are several long, rambling conversations that escalate into arguments, and in most of these scenes no one’s point is explained very well. That’s okay, this was apparently an early draft. But I was appalled at the final confrontation between Jean Louise and her uncle, Dr. Jack Finch. Gee whiz, were there no present-day editors? Did they really think that (SPOILER ALERT) a pompous older man striking a young woman across the mouth would play well with a 21st century audience? I know that in the 50s and 60s jokes about domestic abuse were common, but it can’t be tolerated today.

The scene that touched me the most was the one between Scout and Calpurnia, the now-retired domestic worker who served the Finch family for so many decades. Lee implies that the advent of the civil rights era has created a chasm between the white gentry of Maycombe County, Alabama, and their “Negro” servants and “neighbors.” Of course there is little acknowledgement that from the servants’ point of view that chasm always existed. Nonetheless in this meting with Cal, Scout feels this separation from the woman she considers her surrogate mother, and it wounds her in a way more poignant that the intellectual arguments she has with her father, uncle, aunt and boyfriend. (Yes, lots of people and lots of talk, talk, talk!)

It’s true that the flashbacks to childhood and teen years were the most engaging in the book. It makes sense that Lee’s editors back in the 50s urged her to focus on those. But I also have to wonder if her publisher’s real motivation was to steer Lee to a safer, less controversial subject that the fears of white southerners now the their servants were attempting to exercise their right to vote. Of course I’m happy Harper Lee wrote the heroic and beautiful To Kill a Mockingbird, but a well thought-out, polished novel on the fears of the 50s might well have been a gift to us too. As it is, it’s rather confusing and sad.

SPOILER ALERT: I miss Jem something awful.

Here are a few articles on the book I found interesting, even though they contradict each other:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/25/opinion/joe-nocera-the-watchman-fraud.html?_r=0

http://theconcourse.deadspin.com/go-set-a-watchman-isnt-a-good-book-but-it-is-an-import-1718471112

And to my writer friends: write a will. Write it now. Be sure your wishes are known. Don’t even get me started on whomever is handling Theodor Geisel’s estate.

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