Friday, September 11, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Of all of the books I have read so far this year, Go Set a Watchman was probably the most widely anticipated. And being that the author is none other than Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, it also has the most interesting well as the most controversy. Some bought the book believing it to be a sequel (because that is initially what the public was told), when really it is more like Lee's first draft of her enduring classic. But even knowing this, I bought the book anyway just to see for myself what it was like.

The Situation: Jean Louise Finch has returned home to Maycomb, Alabama for a visit. She now lives in New York City and periodically makes the trip back down south to visit her father Atticus, her aunt Alexandra, and her sometimes/maybe boyfriend, Henry. Now twenty-six years old, Jean Louise has, for the most part, dropped her childhood nickname of "Scout," but she still often goes back to the memories of when she and her brother Jem would play in the blazing heat with their friend Dill. That was back when both Dill and Jem were still around, before Atticus had rheumatoid arthritis, and before Maycomb knew anything about the NAACP.

The Problem: Jean Louise not only remembers the countless childhood hours she spent playing, but also everything Atticus taught her about equality among men. Now that she has returned home, it seems to her that the people she loved and trusted, including Atticus, have forgotten this lesson and abandoned the morality he was so careful to instill in her. She doesn't want to believe it at first, and becomes angrier than angry when she finally does. In true "Scout" fashion, she refuses to let this new revelation completely crush her, and comes out swinging, even if it means she's aiming at her own father. Does she pack up and go back to New York, leaving Maycomb and her family behind for forever? Or does she continue to call Maycomb home, accepting that all people are human, and that she will simply no longer be in step with the people who raised her.

Genre, Themes, History: I would call this historical fiction, but since it was written in the 1950s, much closer to the time of its setting, I went ahead and gave it the label of "contemporary" fiction. As I mentioned before, this isn't so much a sequel to the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird as it was its initial first draft. And being that it was a draft, it really wasn't ever ready for publication. There are some faint signs of Lee's style, mostly in Jean Louise's memories of her childhood and teenage years. But for the most part, this book reads like a first the author is onto something but isn't quite there yet. And then there is the whole Atticus-is-now-an-old-racist thing. If this were in fact a sequel, this would break many reader's hearts, mine included. The Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird is my second favorite character in all of literature (Jean Valjean from Les Miserables will probably always be first). So it is his jarring transformation into the Atticus that is presented in Go Set a Watchman that makes it very easy for me to disassociate this new novel from the classic. But I will say this: when it comes to a general theme, the book does make a good point about the moment children realize their parents, mentors, pastors, or whoever they put up on a pedestal, is only just another human being. That initial realization is always devastating, and poor Jean Louise had a harder time of it I think because it comes to her a little later in life than it does for most people. And as awful as that moment can be, it is also necessary, and not impossible to recover from.

My Verdict: I will gladly disavow people of the notion that Go Set a Watchman is a sequel, and not only because of Atticus. The writing in general is just not up to the To Kill a Mockingbird standard.  At times it is hard to follow because the narrative just doesn't flow all that well in spots. Also, much of the dialogue, particularly the longer speeches and rants, doesn't fit well together. Or certain conversations go on for a little too long, especially for such a short book. I would be hesitant to recommend this book to any lover of To Kill a Mockingbird. On the one hand, a reader can see where the classic first started. But on the other hand, being that it is written by Harper Lee, expectations will be high, therefore leading to inevitable disappointment. And if you adore Atticus as I do, then you'll have to deal with an unfortunate and kind of upsetting new version of him.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Jean Louise tells Henry in plain language that she won't marry him, and why.

Favorite Character: I almost have to pick Jean Louise since she is the only likable primary character in the whole book, and even she will get on your nerves.

Recommended Reading: To Kill a Mockingbird. No explanation or qualifiers needed.

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