Tuesday, August 04, 2015

What We're Reading: New Harper Lee

Go Set A Watchman, the second and only other novel published by Harper Lee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill A Mockingbird, is a book mired in controversy. Did Lee really want the book to be published? Was she competent to make the decision? Why was the book being published now? Was this a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird? A prequel? Or was it something entirely different? The literary furor increased just prior to the publication date as reviewers began to make claims about the book's “worthiness” and reveal that well known and established characters were being altered in ways that some might not find acceptable.

Go Set A Watchman was a first draft submitted by Harper Lee to her then editor Tay Hohoff, with whom Lee worked for the next two years to revise and complete what was eventually published as To Kill A Mockingbird. Go Set A Watchman is neither a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird nor is it an unrelated work--it is simultaneously both and neither. Most importantly, it is a literary curiosity, and it is of the utmost importance that readers keep this fact firmly in mind as they read this new novel.

Go Set A Watchman is about a trip taken by an adult Jean Louise (Scout) Finch from her home in New York City to visit her father in Maycomb, Alabama. It is 1955, one year after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education to mandate integrated schools and declare "separate… inherently unequal.”  Racial tension is running high in her home town as its citizens attempt to deal with the changes they know are coming but do not welcome.

About halfway through the book, Jean Louise finds something that she cannot believe belongs to her father, in spite of being told repeatedly that it does. This discovery is the crux of the novel, and the rest of the book chronicles Jean Louise’s reactions to--and attempts to cope with--the discovery.
Like To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set A Watchman is about the loss of innocence. In To Kill A Mockingbird, the young Jean Louise is forced to confront the inherent racism of a sham trial over the false rape accusations of a white woman against a black man, and the resulting fallout for her family and her community. Almost all of the issues are seen clearly in the perfect black/white interpretation of someone barely over the age of 10.

Go Set A Watchman is a much more nuanced novel. The characters are older, and therefore more able and adept at reading the vagaries and grey areas between most absolute perspectives. Jean Louise must deal with the fact that her father and other members of her family do not share some of her beliefs, but also that they have committed the crime of being human, and therefore unable to live up to the standards she has set for them. While Mockingbird made a difficult story palatable and accessible by telling it from a child’s perspective, Watchman shares a story that is nearly universal: Nearly everyone has had to weather that moment when a cherished adult (whether parent or hero) disappoints him. That the issue between Jean Louise and Atticus is racism adds to the realism and believability of the situation. It is a topic that has caused countless schisms between family members, both then and now. It is troubling that a book written more than 50 years ago, dealing with racial tensions and issues during the nascent development of the Civil Rights Movement, can be as timely and immediate as is Go Set A Watchman.

Is Go Set A Watchman as good a book as To Kill A Mockingbird? No. The characters and events share names and traits, but it is clear that this book has a different story to tell. Is Go Set A Watchman a good and valuable read? Absolutely. And it has just as much to tell us about ourselves, if we’ll listen, as its predecessor.

Editor's note: As you can imagine, there is high demand for a copy of this book, and therefore there are holds. But be advised that the library also offers the e-book, the audio book, and a large print edition.

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