Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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.

go-set-a-watchman-harper-lee

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11 responses

  1. I enjoyed it a little more than you I think. This one could have done with a good edit but I enjoyed the glimpses of the Scout (we know from TKAM) and completely agree that you can see why she was asked to write ‘that’ book.

    I’m intrigued about the way Lee allowed Scout (and readers, and the public) to have a certain perception of Atticus when it wasn’t really the case. Did she sit back and chuckle… knowing she’d not written him the way we’d all thought!?! (As if having played a bit of a trick on us all?)

    • I guess we’ll never know! Maybe she had always intended that readers have the full picture but then, when TKAM became a favourite in the way that it did, she decided to protect her readers and hide Atticus away??

  2. You’ve made me think I might not mind reading this after all. I was determined not to, thinking it was an abandoned first draft that she got pushed into publishing, but maybe it’s a bit more interesting than that. Definitely thinking about it….

    • I think if you go into it as an “interesting literature exercise” then you’ll get something out of it. Certainly the extensive passages about race are interesting given the time it was written. I still firmly believe it was never meant to be on bookshelves though…

  3. It’s pretty clear TKAM was just a part of Lee’s original project and that GSAW is a much more nuanced and adult take on small town racism. My opinion is that Lee would have been horrified at the way whites everywhere patted themselves on the back over the portrayal of Atticus in TKAM. And I agree with Ursula Le Guin’s fabulous review that we lost a great writer when Lee chose not to continue. I gave it 5/5.

    • Totally agree that it is a different take on the same, age-old problem. Do you think she intended to publish GSAW? I think not, figuring she would have done it earlier (as opposed to the manuscript suddenly being ‘found’ – but maybe that was all part of her plan?!).

      The thing that struck me about GSAW was that while in some ways we have become more politically correct (particularly in regards to language), very little has actually changed.

  4. Thanks for the Gastropod rec (looks brilliant!) and I think I agree with wadholloway above – I hope, at least, that Lee’s real aim was to portray the hypocrisy of people in the South at the time who claimed not to be racist, instead of lionising Atticus in the troubling way that TKAM seems to.

    • If you’ve never listened to Gastropod (and like podcasts), get on it – always a fascinating mix of food and geography/ history/ economics – you can’t help but learn something!

      I think it’s terribly sad that in terms of racism, nothing much as changed – perhaps people aren’t so regularly loud and blatant about it but it’s still there, bubbling away. I do wonder what Lee would have had to say about that.

  5. I read this not long after it came out. I was surprised how much I liked it. True – I probably won’t read it again while I can imagine reading TKAM for what will be the third time. I found it reads as a good companion to the other novel, an alternative viewpoint. I think it helped me love TKAM even more.

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