Monday, October 5, 2015

Roundtable Review: Go Set a Watchman

In which several members of our staff who have all read the same book offer their differing thoughts and opinions. Today: the controversial follow-up to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Please note, there WILL be spoilers as we discuss all aspects of this book, including the ending!

Ellen: Reading Go Set a Watchman was a fascinating experience for me. As someone who grew up in the 1960s in the racially tense setting of NYC, I had always found the attitude of Atticus and Scout towards the black community in Maycomb patronizing. What a revelation to read Jean Louise's anger and frustration regarding race relations in Watchman!

As a member of our DFL discussion of the two books said, "Too bad Harper Lee didn't follow up Mockingbird with another book based on Watchman but with the benefit of the terrific editing skills of Tay Hohoff." Perhaps Hohoff thought the public wouldn't be able to respond positively to a more strident narrator. The voice of Scout in Mockingbird is so clear and she shows rather than tells, which makes that book a masterpiece and Watchman a rough draft. We also found the class distinctions in Watchman fascinating to discuss. I agree with the Library Journal's Barbara Hoffert's review which says of Watchman, "Disturbing, important, and not to be compared with Mockingbird; this book is its own signal work."

Judy: From the time I heard that the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, was to be released, I waited patiently for its arrival. I wanted to go back to Atticus, Scout, Calpurnia, and the rest of the characters living in Macomb County. It was worth the wait. Once again, I was holding a book by Harper Lee and clearly, in my opinion, it WAS written by Ms. Lee.

Of course, the story was different and, after reading many reviews, I was prepared when Scout/Jean Louise, looking back at her childhood, was disenchanted with what she found. Atticus was not the hero she portrayed in Mockingbird. He was simply a man  a good man  who was living with the beliefs of many men of his time, and who would have changed his racial views as time progressed.

Unfortunately, issues of race had not changed much from the 1930s to the 1950s in Alabama, and coming to terms with life in Maycomb, and with Atticus in particular, was painful for Scout, now a city girl living in the more liberal Northeast. Scout's life and her relationships with family and friends were affected by what she found out about Atticus on one of her annual visits. However, the insightfulness of Atticus prevailed as before and he helped Scout resolve her conflict and move into adulthood as an independent person.

I loved holding the book, I loved reading the book, and I love the poetic and sublime writing of Harper Lee.

Pat: Before I read the book, I had read some reviews of it in magazines and online. One of the comments made was not to look at the book as a prequel or a sequel, but to read it as a completely "stand alone" novel. With this in mind I read the book and struggled right from the beginning. My immediate feeling was that I was not a fan of the "grownup" Scout at all. I found her very abrasive, not particularly sensitive, cynical, and foul-mouthed.  While I admired her strength and independence, especially as a young woman during this time period in history, I just did not find her likable.

It was at this point that I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I would not be able to read this book as a completely separate novel from the first book, or even from the movie. You can't 'unread' a book that you've already read and loved. You can't 'unsee' one of the greatest movies of all time. So that advice from the critics I had to completely throw out the window. I realized I was most definitely biased right from the beginning. As I plodded through the book, my negative feelings about Scout did not change, and continued right to the end. She bitterly confronts Atticus at the end of the book, with a string of angry, mean, abusive, and foul-mouthed words, and I just couldn't get past where this anger came from, and the fact that Atticus was at the other end of it. It just didn't seem to fit the character. In the end, when Scout finally realizes why she was so angry at Atticus, it was just too late for me to find much redemption in this character. For a child who so loved her father, and idolized him to such a huge degree, it just never made sense to me why she would be so abusive to him. To me, it just seemed almost unrealistic.

Suzanne: For me, the best part of Go Set a Watchman was re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird in anticipation of the release. While I have some issues with Mockingbird, it is a well-written, engaging story... Go Set A Watchman is not. It is clearly a first draft. Most of the book consists of conversations between Jean Louise Finch and people who are simply explaining their points of view, with hardly any action or character building. There are two scenes that stand out for being charming and fun to read  both memories Jean Louise has of when she was a child and teenager. Good for Harper Lee's editor for recognizing that there was potential in those scenes and for steering her in that direction into what became Mockingbird.

Even if you haven't heard too much about this book, you have probably heard that the character of Atticus Finch is different than how he appears in Mockingbird. In this book, he is tolerant of hearing people's extremely racist points of view, does not believe that the NAACP and SCOTUS rulings in favor of civil rights will help African Americans, and was a member of the Ku Klux Klan during his youth because it was an organization that every white man was supposed to join. The plot of this book is Jean Louise being horrified by this revelation and coming to terms with her feelings about her father.

I am going to spoil the ending here. Jean Louise cannot reconcile the fact that her father is her hero with the new knowledge that he has such backwards views about race, and so she decides she can't ever see him again. When she tries to leave town, her uncle punches her in the face and calls her a bigot (for being color-blind), then makes her feel better with a glass of whiskey. Apparently that is exactly what she needed, because she is then able to reconcile with Atticus, accepting him as just a man who loves her, although no longer her hero. What a reader in 2015 is supposed to take away as the message of this book, I just don't know. Sometimes the people you love are surprisingly racist?

There is one character that we do not get to hear going on and on at length about race and the South, and that is Calpurnia. She is the Finch's former housekeeper, a black woman that Jean Louise thinks of as the closest person to a mother that she had. When Jean Louise visits Calpurnia, she doesn't say much to Jean Louise, which the reader is told means that she no longer loves the Finch family like her own, but just thinks of them as merely white people. Hearing from the black characters about how they view the changes in society would have been interesting and also illuminating to the book's other characters. But maybe that was beyond the scope of Harper Lee's abilities, as a white Southern writer living in the 1950s. 

Read this book if you are interested in seeing how obvious it is that writers need to write many drafts (with the help of editors), or if you like reading arguments in favor of state's rights vs. the Supreme Court. If you are interested in the ongoing, complicated state of race in America, you should probably read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which was released at the same time this summer.

Clearly, the staff had very different opinions about the book! What did you think of Go Set a Watchman? 

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