Friday, July 17, 2015

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman

If Go Set a Watchman had been published before To Kill a Mockingbird as Harper Lee originally intended, then the novel would have been insignificant...meaningless even. Tom Robinson's trial would have just been a vague incident in Jean Louise's memory instead of the culturally iconic scene that it became. Atticus would be his daughter's fallen hero, but not ours. If Go Set a Watchman had been first, we would only know Atticus as a racist and we would not care; he would not have been an ethical role model, moral center of an entire novel, and a hero. While there would be references to Atticus' past in an effort to explain why Jean Louise's world is so shaken when she discovers her father's beliefs, we as the reader would not share them. The fact is, though, Go Set a Watchman was not published first, so Jean Louise's feelings of hurt and betrayal are our own.

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Go Set a Watchman is about fallen heroes and disillusionment. Jean Louise tries to reconcile how Atticus Finch, the archetype of morality and good, could be a racist, and that is what many readers of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird are trying to reconcile as well. Even with all the hype surrounding the novel, I tried to reserve judgement, especially when it came to Atticus, thinking that there was no way a character could change that drastically in twenty years, and went into reading the novel somewhat in denial. When Jean Louise, who will forever be "Scout" in my mind, finds out Atticus is attending segregationist citizens council meetings, she thinks, "[He was] pulling something, [he was] there merely to keep an eye on things," a thought I, like probably many other readers, hopefully had as well.

The most painful thing about Go Set a Watchman is that this Atticus is still recognizably, unquestionably Atticus Finch. He is still a loving father, a good neighbor, endlessly reasonable, thoughtful, and giving. Regardless, his portrayal in Go Set a Watchman is still disheartening. I tried to explain it to my husband when he noticed I was becoming visibly upset after the first 100 or so pages... Reading this novel would be like if JK Rowling wrote an eighth Harry Potter novel set X amount of years in the future where Harry, an Auror, willingly casts the Cruciatus Curse against magical wrong-doers or, God forbid, Muggles, on a semi-regular basis. Fans of the series would not want to read that, regardless of whether Rowling was able to explain how Harry became that way as he grew older while making it consistent with his character from the first seven novels. It would be heartbreaking.

On a bright side, Jean Louise Finch serves as a moral compass in Go Set a Watchman. Atticus taught her well as she challenges beliefs that she knows are wrong. While not perfect, she has the potential to be better than her father and her hometown. She is also recognizably Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, the outspoken, precocious tomboy, but she is now twenty-six and still out of place in Maycomb. After living the past few years in New York City, she is unable to relate to the women in Maycomb, their interests, and their views on race.

I wanted to hate Go Set a Watchman, and I wanted to be angry at it for ruining the character that I have held in such high regard since reading To Kill a Mockingbird in Mrs. Tucker's ninth grade English class. The controversy surrounding its release would be enough: the story behind its publication is sketchy, almost certainly achieved through unethical means. Unfortunately, the book is good and its message, however painfully it hits, is important. Heroes can fall and, more importantly, that is normal. To Kill a Mockingbird is told from Scout's perspective. At six years old, Scout, like the majority of readers, have a bit of hero-worship when it comes to Atticus. Twenty years later, Jean Louise is seeing her father in a new light and stops the childlike hero worship that we practice as children when we become adults. It hurts, but it is part of life.

Overall, I give Go Set a Watchman a 7 out of 10. While it somewhat ruins Atticus for me, and I am sure Gregory Peck would agree with that, it is still a courageous novel for a young woman to write in the middle of the 1950s. Tackling the issue of white privilege without pulling any punches might not have been received very favorably had the novel been published closer to the time it was written. Perhaps it is perfect timing for the novel to be published, as our culture wrestles with the same issues Atticus did in the 1950s, settling our own watchmen to be on the lookout for our worst fears.

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