Bibliophilopolis is pleased to welcome a guest reviewer for this post!
Adrienne is a high school French and English teacher in Central Indiana, and a single mom. With the enormous amount of free time she has, she loves to read, wait for the next season of BBC’s “Sherlock” to be released, and cheers on her favorite soccer teams.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
When I first heard that Harper Lee was releasing a new novel, fifty years after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, I was one (of the many) who was ecstatic. So when reviews came out painting Go Set a Watchman in a negative light, I was disappointed and worried it might damage my love for To Kill a Mockingbird. Because you can’t always believe what you read on social media or on blogs (gasp!), I decided bad reviews wouldn’t deter me from reading the new novel.
When the book was finally released, I’ll admit I started reading cautiously. With a lot of the reviews screaming “Atticus is a racist”, I almost expected the novel to open with Atticus bursting into the first scene donning a white sheet and carrying a burning cross. Instead, the novel opens with Scout, going now by her given name, Jean Louise, as an adult traveling from New York City back home to Maycomb for a visit. I was immediately drawn into the novel with a few comical mishaps that prove to the reader that although she has grown up, Scout is still Scout, after all of these years. While a lot in Maycomb has changed, one thing that has not is the way Jean Louise views her father: at 26 years old, Jean Louise still holds her father up on a very high pedestal. Herein lies the problem: all idols must eventually fall, and Atticus is no exception. During her visit, Jean Louise begins to discover her father isn’t as perfect as she always imagined him to be. For her, this discovery is devastating. Yet as I continued to read, I didn’t become angry as many others have. I actually understood the why: when you’ve placed your idol up so high that nothing can touch it, it takes something colossal to knock said idol down. What I discovered is that this book isn’t about Atticus Finch being a racist. It’s really about that moment when kids realize that their parents aren’t perfect; they’re human, with their own flaws and scars. This process is something that we all must go through with our own parents, and for Jean Louise, it takes a massive shock to open her eyes to this life lesson.
In examining the negative reactions that have come from so many reviews, I’ve found it to be a great example of life imitating art. We (the readers), just like Jean Louise, have held Atticus Finch up on a literary pedestal since he first appeared in literature. He has been adored and loved for so long, and just as it was for Scout, it would take a massive flaw in order to knock him off our pedestals too. In a sense, WE are Jean Louise. The difference is that it only took her 20 years to figure it out, instead of the 50 years it took us, as readers.
One thing the reader should keep in mind before casting the proverbial first stone at Atticus, is that we are, in part, a product of the time period in which we are born and raised. Atticus, for example, grew up in a time and place where segregation was the status quo. So although he had evolved enough to raise Scout to see and believe things very differently from how he was raised, it was also very hard for him to completely leave old, antiquated ways of life behind. He did the best that he could, and one redeeming quality is that in this novel he still tries to keep an open mind in every situation, even if he doesn’t always make the best decisions.
Overall, the novel is a very good read. I thought Harper Lee did a great job in representing both sides of the race issue (and what better timing than right now to release a book that can open further dialogue about race and race relations?). There are definitely some choppy spots where the novel would have benefited from a good, healthy edit, but there are also moments of absolutely gorgeous writing that remind you why Harper Lee is so highly revered. Even in the rough spots, her talent still shines brightly. It is also important to remember that this novel was never meant to be published. It was used simply as a springboard for the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird, and was never actually meant to be seen. With that in mind, if you are a huge fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, then you should definitely read Go Set a Watchman. The best novels are the ones that make you question and think through your own beliefs and ideals. Go Set a Watchman is capable of doing just that.
above: a recent photo of Harper Lee (found at http://pixel.nymag.com/imgs/daily/vulture/2015/02/03/03-harper-lee-2.w750.h560.2x.jpg)
Want to read more? Here are a couple other great blog posts by “friends of Bibliophilopolis” Dale and Melissa about Go Set a Watchman: