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Review: Go Set a Watchman
"Death of a Mockingbird"
By Alex Carrigan
What else is there to say about To Kill a Mockingbird? The 1960 novel by Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards and is considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and the source for one of the best films of the 1960's. The novel, following young Jean Louise “Scout” Finch in her small, Alabama town in the 1930's, was praised for its depiction of childhood, racism, and justice in a time where prejudice and segregation were the norm. The novel was also famous for the character of Atticus Finch, who became an ideal for “the good lawyer” and for being a good father. Lee was adamant to write a sequel, causing the public to view her as a prime example of a one-hit novelist.
That is, until a copy of the “first draft” of Mockingbird was discovered in Lee's assets. Go Set a Watchman was released on July 14, 2015, and had one of the biggest hypes for a new novel ever. Amazon said it was the most pre-ordered book in their history, and the book has already sold over a million copies at the time of this writing. The public finally had their second book from Lee, and the plot (which was stated to follow an older Scout as she returned to Maycomb in the 1950s), was promising.
So how did it turn out? Worse than it should have been, but not bad enough to be irredeemable. In short: meh.
Go Set a Watchman was written in the late 1950s, and Lee was encouraged to follow the flashbacks of a younger Scout and build a story off that. Because of that, Watchman is quite clearly an early version of the Mockingbird, and the first few chapters make it clear we’re not reading the same versions of Atticus and Scout we’ve grown up with and hoped to see. Reportedly, the book wasn’t edited from its original manuscript before being released, so there’s even a few inconsistencies in terms of story and character. For example, Mockingbird had Atticus lose Tom Robinson’s trial, but Watchman says he got Robinson acquitted.
Because of this, I started to think of Watchman as an alternate universe retelling of the Mockingbird world. Did this make the book better? Not really, but it at least made me at least tolerate some of what I was reading.
Where does Watchman fail where Mockingbird succeed? Part of what made Mockingbird great was that it looked like a perfect encapsulation of childhood. There was so much about Scout’s life in Maycomb that resonated with readers. She wasn’t the most normal child, she had a big imagination, and she was very observant of her surroundings. Even without the trial story, we got a clear idea of what life in rural Alabama in the ‘30s would have been like and we enjoy it because we like Scout and her adventures with her brother, Jem, and her friend, Dill.
Watchman suffers from a lack of focus. There’s no real story to tell. We just follow Jean Louise (only her family calls her Scout in this book. The narration always calls her Jean Louise) over a few days when she comes home for a visit. It’s mostly slice-of-life until the big narrative shift, and while that’s never really a problem, it’s not as interesting as it could be. Jean Louise is twenty-six and lives in New York, but we never really learn much about what she does there or much of who she is. We see a lot of what she’s not (submissive, ladylike, and proper), but most of her interactions with other character seem to hammer in the idea that Jean Louise is not like the people of Maycomb, which can get tiring after a while when it seems to just repeat the same point with every interaction she has with another character.
The big narrative shift is where the book has tended to split a lot of readers. Partway through the book, Jean Louise discovers that Atticus and her Maycomb boyfriend, Henry, are part of a council to repel the NAACP and keep African-Americans in their place. She has a breakdown because of this, and readers have had similar reactions. Suddenly, we learn that Atticus Finch, a literary figure who represents decency, morals, and respect, is a segregationist.
The book really tries to deal with the disillusionment of learning that the man you idolized for his philosophy of walking in another man’s shoes would think that it’s better for black people to stay away from whites and to avoid integration and miscegenation altogether. Most readers are probably like Jean Louise when they want to get the hell away from Atticus and the town he represents. It’s hard to learn that this particular character could have such a large character fault, especially when it seemed impossible for him to be like that.
The issue with this is that it might work better if Watchman did not have the connection to Mockingbird. If Watchman was its own separate book with unique characters that have never appeared in another book, this wouldn’t be such an issue. The reader could probably handle this reveal and see it as more of an indication that Jean Louise lived in an idealized world and couldn’t believe her father could be so flawed. Since this is the supposed first book in the version, it also means that Lee probably wanted the story to be like this from the beginning, or even that the way Atticus acted in Mockingbird hid this real aspect of his character.
It also hurts that Atticus really does act the same when this side of his character is revealed. Sure, he’s arguing for segregation, but he’s still got the same poise and assertiveness that made us admire him when he was defending Tom Robinson. Maybe he sees it as a necessary evil, but you can’t deny that he’s really trying his hardest to defend this point of view to Jean Louise. That doesn’t excuse his beliefs, nor does it mean Jean Louise is wrong for challenging him, but it shockingly stays in line with what we do know, even if we don’t want Atticus Finch to be this way.
Go Set a Watchman really should have had a once-over before it was published. Lee is 89 and in assisted living, so it’s unlikely that the book could have received a proper edit, especially with the pressure to publish the book on time. I don’t think the book is completely awful, but it doesn’t excite because the hype and the legacy ensured that it wouldn’t be well received. Readers went into this way too thrilled at the idea of continuing the Mockingbird story, and wanted to believe Lee was going to turn out another successful book akin to her first runaway success.
The problem is that the book was just not worth the hype or the buildup. It’s ultimately average. Nothing is really groundbreaking or well done, nothing is particularly memorable, and there’s no real added value to reading this book. You learn more about the characters from Mockingbird, but not in a way that makes it a must-read. It’s almost cynical that this book would come along after Mockingbird had built enough of a foundation for how well-written and important it was as a novel of its time and as an American novel. It’s like Watchman exists to spit in your face and disappoint. Sure, it’s necessary to go through life feeling disappointed things didn't go the way you hoped, learning that your parents have human faults, and that the environment you were raised in could make you feel alienated instead of welcome, but did it have to be with this author and these characters?
I really wish it didn’t. It’d be better to just read Mockingbird again and watch the film version. That story doesn’t try to hide the world’s ugliness, but also tries to tell you that there’s still beauty and kindness out there if you look hard enough. It’s cynical, but also hopeful. There’s a sliver of hope at the end of Watchman, but I don’t believe things will be okay after Jean Louise goes home with Atticus. To me, Watchman, while not too bad a book, just doesn’t live up to the legacy of its predecessor, nor does it stand on its own as a novel.
#Real #BookReview #Sequel #HarperLee #Disconnect #AtticusFinch #Scout
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7/22/2015 09:52:04 am
Even though I haven't read this new book, nor do I remember Mockingbird as fondly as most Americans do, I am very interested in the dismantling of the Atticus Finch character. He is a heroic literary character and listed as the #1 Movie Hero by AFI, but it seems like the people who are aching most by this reveal of him to be racist are white readers. The disillusionment angle is very interesting, and maybe a necessary realization for the Scout character to confront. We have all been there. Atticus Finch was a hero to white American readers in the 60s because he was a penultimate idol of the white savior mentality that was so prevalent in our pop culture during that decade. Maybe there is something contemporary about Go Set A Watchmen in that regard.
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