Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set A Watchman is a mediocre book on its own, but it sheds light on the creation of To Kill a Mockingbird. I'd advise reading this found manuscript if you are interested in the writing process and in historical accuracy. There are valid reasons not to read: possible elder exploitation of the blind/deaf author and ruining your loving memory of Atticus Finch. Idealistic readers beware.

As a writer myself, I was curios about Harper Lee's process and read Watchman as a first draft. This "new" book is unevenly paced, anecdotal, preachy and slow to launch. The first 100 pages are mostly character sketches, but it was still a pleasure to meet Scout as a 26-year-old woman. She continues to be a delightful, quirky character. In the early chapters Scout is torn between looking after her ailing father and marrying her childhood sweetheart in Alabama versus going back to her independent life in New York City.

I loved this line about her small town: "If you did not want much, there was plenty."

The central themes of racism and loss of innocence didn't launch until page 101 of this 278 page novel. In a narrative jolt, Scout makes a shocking discovery that destroys her trust in the men she loves and rocks all her beliefs. Atticus the shining knight is tarnished nearly beyond recognition. Mockingbird seems like a fairy tale by comparison.

Although painful to accept, the Watchman is more historically accurate. The racist opponents to segregation in the South included well educated men, like the fictional Atticus, who otherwise seemed to be prime examples of moral integrity. Atticus's racism is disguised as "Jeffersonian Democracy" and benevolent paternalism. Scout, who was raised "color blind" by a black maid and a white father, believes in equal rights for all. The narrative suspense rests on this feud of ideology in one family. I stayed up until dawn finishing the Watchman. This nauseating debate still feels relevant. Two weeks ago the Confederate flag was still flying at South Carolina's capitol. Racial inequities persist.

The joy of reading Watchman came from uncovering the genesis of Mockingbird. The famous climatic Mockingbird trial is summarized as backstory, and there are delightful childhood flashbacks. I can imagine the sage editor, mining these rough gems and helping the author polish them into a masterpiece. It encouraged me as a writer to see that even Harper Lee struggled in her first draft. There are so many tales than can be told. Genius is in finding the heart of the story.

11 comments:

A Cuban In London said...

I really liked your review. I thought it was brave after all the fawning over the book. Confession time: I have never read To Kill... and I don't know if I am inclined to read Go Set... Too much hype.

Greetings from London.

Barrie said...

Thanks so much for reviewing, Sarah. I always like to get your perspective. It's been years since I read To Kill a Mockingbird. I almost feel I should read Mockingbird and Watchman as companion novels.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

Thank you for writing this review. I received my pre-ordered copy on the day it came out. Haven't read it yet, but based on what I'd heard,thought I would read it as a first draft as best I could and put aside any negative thoughts. Think of it like the first book one writes that usually ends up unpublished in a box somewhere. I also understand your concerns for the writer.

Not afraid to read it after your assessment.

Jennifer A. Jilks said...

Good for you. I think many are on the fence about this. So many books and so little time!

troutbirder said...

Lots of good criticism here. I'm like the comparative history aspect as we often forget that judging then by now isn't always fair when it come to writing. This tempts me to read this book. The questionable circumstances of its "discovery" and what the author may or may not have want leaves me wonder who benefited from its discovery. And then there is a mediocre book that need some serious editing. Yup I think I stick to my original thought and skip it entirely. :)

thecuecard said...

Nice post Sarah. I like the points you make. Great Lee sentence about her hometown on there being plenty. Sounds like you enjoyed reading this "draft." I do plan to read it as well. It's too interesting not to. Gives one a look into her process perhaps

Rose said...

I just finished reading "Watchman" this week, and I appreciate your excellent review, Sarah. I agree with everything you've said. Some of my friends, especially on Facebook, have vowed not to read it either because of what they feel has been exploitation of Harper Lee (which I tend to agree with) or because they didn't want to see another side of Atticus Finch. But I was curious, and like you, wondered how Lee's ideas for Mockingbird evolved. I enjoyed the flashbacks to Scout's growing up, but the whole conflict with Atticus over his beliefs is rambling and comes to an unsatisying end. I'm glad I read it, but I'm even more glad Lee found a good editor who led her to create my favorite book.

cynthia said...

Really excellent review, Sarah. I can't remember the last time I stayed up until dawn to finish a book.

Bee said...

Sarah, really excellent feedback on this much hyped book! (I tried to post a comment from FB, but it didn't seem to "take".)

Sarah Laurence said...

All, if you do read it, do come back and comment. I value your opinions.

ACIL, I'd recommend Mockingbird mainly for how influential it has been on American literature/education. Despite the child narrator, it's a book written for adults.

Rose, it was fun to hear your reaction, which does indeed sound similar to mine.

Bee, others have mentioned occasional problems posting comments without signing into google first. I wish I could fix that bug but hopefully it was a temporary glitch.

Donna said...

Really good review of a very interesting book. I certainly didn't love it, but in the end and after thinking about it and reading reviews like these, I was glad that I read it.