Adult Fiction, Civil Rights, Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee, Historical Fiction, Racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Synopsis: Maycomb, Alabama, 1957. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch –“Scout”–returns home from New York City to visit her aging 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 nearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the same iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman depicts a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past–a journey that can only be guided by one’s own conscience.
“The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong.”
~ Uncle Jack, Go Set a Watchman ~
I just finished reading this last night and I’m still attempting to wrap my head around it. Hopefully this won’t turn out to be one long ramble. I also apologize for the spoilers, but I don’t think I can really write this review without including some.
If you haven’t read Go Set a Watchman and are planning to please keep in mind it’s not a sequel. It’s the story from which To Kill a Mockingbird emerged and I think it’s an important distinction. This is an unedited manuscript which has many flaws, yet still has echoes of the original classic.
Eagerly anticipating reading GSAW, despite the controversial rumors spreading like wildfire over the internet, I re-read TKAM over the weekend and once again became enchanted with the town and characters of Maycomb. This was in large part due to the first person narrative of young Scout. Seeing her world through the eyes of a young child made me nostalgic for my own childhood innocence. While GSAW focuses on Jean Louise, now an adult, it’s told mainly in the third person and for me lost some of it’s charm right there. While I don’t mind this type of narrative normally, I found it jarring in this case, perhaps because I had just read TKAM.
The other problem I have with this book is Jean Louise herself. She’s been living in NYC for the last few years pursuing her dream of becoming an artist. In some instances she shows a much more sophisticated view of the world than her family and friends in Maycomb, yet at other times she sounds exactly like a young Scout throwing a tantrum when being confronted with something she finds disagreeable. She shows this side of herself several times throughout the book and there were times when it seemed as though there were two people inhabiting the same body.
Never is this more clear as when she confronts Atticus after seeing him at a “citizens’ council meeting”, which is basically a generic name for the Ku Klux Clan. What could have been a tear-jerking, portrayal of a young woman discovering the man she idolizes has feet of clay, instead turns into a shrill tirade against the injustice of racism. While I entirely agree with her, she’s so emotionally overwrought, that many of her points are lost in the midst of her hysteria. It’s also clear that despite her horror at Atticus’s racism, she herself espouses some racist views. There’s a scene where Jean Louise is arguing with Uncle Jack and tries to defend herself saying, “I don’t especially want to run out and marry a Negro or something.” She like Atticus feel the black residents of Maycomb are childlike and ignorant. The difference is that she believes they still deserve to be treated equally, whereas Atticus holds to Jeffersonian ideals and believes that equality is a right which has to be earned.
The entire story has a sort of unpolished aspect to it which makes sense since this has been released unedited. That said, there are some enjoyable moments, my favorites being Jean Louise’s flashbacks to her teen years. Especially the ones featuring Jem who I truly missed in this book. There’s also some enjoyable and touching moments between Jean Louise and her boyfriend Hank before she discovers he’s also part of the citizens’ council. While several familiar characters make appearances, others are missing, most notably Dill who’s traveling in Italy, and Jem who died before the events of this book. I found myself wondering how Jem would have reacted to Atticus and his beliefs especially since he had been planning on joining his father as a lawyer up until his untimely death of a heart attack. I remember how angry and upset he was at the outcome of Tom Robinson’s trial.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from Go Set a Watchman it’s that bigotry and racism have deep-seated roots in this country and they still effect all of us. This has been illustrated by the massacre in Charleston, as well as the recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality and some of the reactions to it. If a hero like Atticus Finch can turn into a supporter of such evil idealogy, then we are all at risk.
You might have noticed that I haven’t given this a rating. That’s because I find myself so conflicted I honestly don’t know what rating it deserves. That said, I do recommend you read this book despite it’s flaws. It will make you think and confront not only some historical aspects of our country that many of us would like to forget, but also question how far we’ve really come in the last several decades.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with this introspective quote from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates: “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”
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