Tuesday, July 14, 2015

"Go Set a Watchman" Review

As a history student, and now, teacher, the 1960s fascinated me.  I always wondered what it would have been like to live at such a dramatic time.

Then, 2014 came, bringing with it a string of highly-publicized confrontations between law enforcement and Black Americans.  2015 thus far has brought riots in Baltimore, the tragic shooting at a Black church in South Carolina, and a growing movement to remove the Confederate flag.  Today, July 14, 2015 also brought Go Set a Watchman.  The controversy over the nature of the decision to publish this novel aside, I was excited to hear that in the midst of tension, violence and chaos not unlike that in the 1960s, the world would hear one more story from the same brilliant author who gave readers To Kill a Mockingbird fifty-five years ago.  This was accompanied by a surreal feeling of becoming unstuck in time and place, a feeling that has not eased much having now read the novel.

Just to make it perfectly clear up front for any who may not have understood: Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.  At least, not in the traditional sense.  It was Harper Lee's first attempt at a novel, and in response to editorial advice, Lee took a flashback scene from the book and focused on developing the characters in that setting, resulting in the beloved novel that spawned an Academy-award winning film adaptation, and has been mandatory reading for so many high school English students since then.  Go Set a Watchman is that original manuscript, exactly as it was when Lee submitted it more than five decades ago.  This means that the book that record millions have pre-ordered on Amazon and will soon read is the same book that publishers sent back with the advice that Lee expand the flashbacks into a full novel.  This is Harper Lee's first attempt at a novel, even though it deals with familiar characters years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird.  This is an un-edited and un-polished copy of a beloved author's first attempt.  Although the release of this novel doubles the list of her works to two, it is undeniable that Mockingbird was a masterpiece and that Lee learned quite a lot as she revised.  All of this in mind, it is crucial that readers be somewhat gracious to Lee regarding some of the technical aspects of this book.  I've already seen a few reviews criticizing the dialogue for rambling or becoming stilted in places, or criticizing the novel's resolution for feeling rushed.  To these critics, I say "What do you expect?  Harper Lee was a 30-year old first-time novelist, and she responded to an editor's critiques on this exact manuscript by writing one of the (if not THE) greatest masterpieces in American Literature!"  It would be unfair for us to expect that same level of polish and brilliance out of her first attempt, especially considering that it has been published as-is, with no revision.  By rights, we should never have seen this story.  Yet, this is the story Lee set out to tell, and it's markedly different from the story she ultimately told in Mockingbird.  And, I argue, it's the story that America needs to hear at this time, just as Mockingbird was the story America needed to hear then.

The themes of To Kill a Mockingbird are familiar to most Americans who can remember their 8th, 9th, perhaps 10th grade English class: childhood innocence; prejudice; integrity.  The story was told from perspective of a six-year old Jean-Louise "Scout" Finch, and the readers were invited to see the world through her eyes.

The Jean-Louise Finch who we meet riding for a visit home to Maycomb on the train in the opening pages of Watchman is 26 years old, and has been living in New York.  She finds herself torn between a deep affection and nostalgia for Maycomb on the one hand, isolation and disgust with the racial climate of her home-town on the other.  In one particularly memorable scene, Jean-Louise attends a "coffee"--a social function hosted by her Aunt, and finds herself listening to three different conversations at once: married women with no children; married women with children; and unmarried women with no prospects.  Lee humorously weaves this scene with snippets from each conversation, the image being this lonely young woman stuck in the middle, not feeling at ease in any of the social circles around her, a stranger in the town where she grew up.

Race takes on a more central role in Watchman than it did in Mockingbird, and I wondered as I read if Lee's sometimes heavy hand on issues that were at the time completely contemporary (Brown vs. the Board of Education; the NAACP; a burgeoning Civil Rights movement) played a role in her editor's recommendation.  Before this manuscript came to light, I always thought it was a stroke of genius that Lee would comment on racism in the 50s and 60s by telling a story set several decades earlier, but it seems that this was not her initial intent.  In any event, what was fresh and current when she wrote the book is now the stuff of U.S. History textbooks and is further removed from us than the Great Depression was from Lee... and yet, still painfully relevant.  Through Jean-Louise, the reader feels the angry indignation of a society that seems slow to change.  This resistance to change is embodied in none other than Atticus Finch.

Much of the buzz I heard around the novel in the days leading up to its release came in such tantalizing headlines as "Atticus Finch a Racist in Lee's New Novel"; "Watchman's Atticus Finch a Member of the Klan" and the like.  The truth is far more complex, not nearly so black and white.  Readers will be delighted to find the 72-year old, heavily arthritic Atticus every bit as wry, patient and gentle as he was in Mockingbird.  At the same time, this is an Atticus who is concerned and even cynical about the NAACP's relationship to the Supreme Court, and who resists the expansion of the federal government into the lives of American citizens.  This is also an Atticus who feels that government-mandated, rapid desegregation will be a disaster.  Yet, it is the same Atticus who taught his children that to understand someone, they need to walk around in their skin; the same Atticus who defended Tom Robinson at great risk to his career and personal safety; the same Atticus who taught his children that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.  Atticus is who he always was, but the readers come away with a broadened perspective on his humanity, along with Jean-Louise.  At one point, Jean-Louise's Uncle Jack, Atticus' younger brother, remarks that Atticus may not make many mistakes, but he does make mistakes, like anybody.  Come to that, some of the comments Jean-Louise makes may seem backward and racially offensive to modern ears, even though she simultaneously rages against the backwardness she sees in her father--an effect Lee surely did not intend, but is surprisingly effective nonetheless.

It is in dealing with such disappointing, but relatable realizations about the heroes we hold dear that the novel comes to its central theme.  As we watch Jean-Louise struggle with the recognition that her father--her idol, her watchman--is only human, we are invited to do the same, and while we're at it, to recognize our own flaws.

While this is written in a less sure, less accomplished hand than the one that told us the story of Jem, Scout and Dill so many years ago, the themes are poignant and powerful, and offer a call to agency in the face of injustice; agency in spite of our flaws and limitations; agency that deals graciously with others' flaws and limitations.

Along the way, Watchman offers a return to Maycomb at many different points in Jean-Louise's life by virtue of the flashbacks that so captivated Lee's editor.  Like Mockingbird, this novel is filled with witty, lyrical scenes of small-town life; unlike Mockingbird, it is tempered with a yearning for days gone by and a feeling of not quite fitting into that small town.  For this small-town boy who has lived in Tokyo for nearly a decade, such feelings hit close to home.  Watchman also offers readers a unique and insightful perspective on Southern society at a time when the South seems to be the setting for the worst of racial conflicts in America.

While this is not (and should never be anticipated to be) the masterpiece that Mockingbird is, it is also a tremendous gift to the world and one that comes at a time when the gift is most needed.  It is my sincere hope that this book, as with Mockingbird challenges its readers to examine themselves, and to have the courage to do what is right.