I think, if they were being brutally honest, most people would give Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman two stars. But you throw an extra star Watchman’s way because it’s Harper Lee. And because we all know those arseholes published this book against her long-held wish.
But I have no qualms about my three star rating because I pulled the right rein and listened to this book. Yes, the words are still the same but when they’re spoken in Reese Witherspoon’s smooth-as-molasses Southern drawl, it’s a very lovely story to hear.
I don’t need to go into detail about the plot – Scout (Jean-Louise) Finch is all grown-up and is questioning the values of her home town; expectations of her as a woman; and what she understands about her father and others close to her –
“She glanced down the long, low-ceilinged livingroom at the double row of women, women she had merely known all her life, and could not talk to them five minutes without drying up stone dead. I can’t think of anything to say to them… if I married anybody from this town these would be my friends, and I couldn’t think of a thing to say to them. I would be Jean Louise the Silent… I’d be churched to death, bridge-partied to death, called upon to give book reviews at the Amanuensis Club, expected to become part of the community. It takes a lot of what I don’t have to be a member of this wedding.”
The story includes marvelous flashbacks to Scout’s childhood and it’s easy to see why editors had Lee redirect the character into a stand-alone book. However, there’s no innocence in Scout’s voice in Watchman – instead, she’s mature, harder and judgemental. When the story reaches its climax (yes, the bit where Atticus is portrayed as racist and Mockingbird fans everywhere wept), Jean Louise faces some painful truths about her father –
“I remember that rape case you defended, but I missed the point. You love justice, all right. Abstract justice written down item by item on a brief – nothing to do with that black boy, you just like a neat brief. His cause interfered with your orderly mind, and you had to work order out of disorder.”
Readers have struggled with the character of Atticus in Watchman. Did Lee ruin all that we held pure and true for so many years? Probably. But I do think that the historical context of this book, and when it was written, must be kept in mind. Perhaps we hold Jean Louise as the role model?
“I was taught never to take advantage of anybody who was less fortunate than myself, whether he be less fortunate in brains, wealth, or social position; it meant anybody, not just Negroes.”
3/5 Thought-provoking for lots of reasons.
I’m pairing this book with fried chicken, mostly because in between listening to Witherspoon read the story, I also happened to listen to a Gastropod podcast on the cultural origins of fried chicken and it was fascinating.