Go Set a Watchman

Finished Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.

Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch—Scout—struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.

Exploring how the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are adjusting to the turbulent events transforming mid-1950s America, Go Set a Watchman casts a fascinating new light on Harper Lee’s enduring classic. Moving, funny and compelling, it stands as a magnificent novel in its own right.”

Okay.  So this will be a non-traditional review.  First, we will take as read the following arguments and statements:

1)  The publishing of this book is ethically murky, at best.  We all know that Harper Lee was adamant that she wouldn’t publish another book.  She reportedly now has dementia and is essentially blind and deaf after a stroke.  Recently-ish, her sister—who was very protective of her and her literary legacy—died and three months after that, this book was “found” and was fast-tracked to a release date.

2)  It is not a secret that the book was unedited and so it definitely reads like a rough draft.  It’s not bad—it’s very entertaining, actually, and there are some really beautiful parts—but it definitely could’ve used polishing.

3)  We learn that Atticus is not perfect and it’s sad.

So yes.  I went into this with my eyes wide open.  I’ll also admit that my expectations were very low.  I’ve read books on their way to publication, and I know that early drafts are generally…well, not horrible, per se, but typically very far from the finished version.

And I ended up enjoying it a great deal.

Before we get into the heavy stuff, let me mention this: we get more childhood stories from Scout, and they are completely delightful.  For that alone, I was so happy I ended up taking a chance on Go Set a Watchman.

There’s also a lot to be said about the experience of leaving your hometown and then returning home as an adult.  This place that used to be your entire world is now really small, and the people in it seem…well, small too.  And it’s not that you don’t love your old place and the people you’ve known forever, but it makes you feel stifled.  And also like a jerk for noticing it.

But enough about this, right? You want to get to the part where Atticus is a racist.

This works best as a sort of primer on how to deal with the fact that people you love aren’t perfect.  Like Scout, I was horrified essentially to the point of feeling personally betrayed at learning that Atticus had these horrible thoughts about integration.  (Although I also tried very hard to remember that this was written literally 60 years ago and that our culture is in a very different place now—fortunately—and that if he were magically alive now, he would probably be horrified at how he used to think.)

But the most interesting part, for me, is that all the outrage has focused on how Atticus is racist.  I haven’t seen anyone say that Scout is also racist.  (Doesn’t mean that no one did; I experienced GSAW fatigue and stopped reading the hand-wringing reviews fairly early on.)

Atticus’ racism is very in your face.  He is against integration and attended a KKK meeting (literally one) and another “council meeting” that seems pretty KKK-y to me but is not actually the Klan. But Scout’s is different.  It’s the insidious racism that generally isn’t mentioned.  They agree in conversation that African-Americans are much “simpler” than white people are, but Scout continues to insist that they’re human, as though that acknowledgement keeps the other things she said (which essentially could be boiled down to, “Well, they’re dumber than I am, bless their hearts”) and incidentally, Atticus never acts like they’re not human;  his stance is more “they’re just different and they need to stay over there.”

This book could open up a lot of really good conversations about racism, except the people who need to read it never will because the idea of otherwise good people having major flaws could lead to the thought that maybe they also have prejudices that may need to be confronted.  These are talks we need to have, but probably never will.

I’m a reader and I’ve loved Atticus and Scout for half my life.  And I spent a day with my old friends and learned new things about them.  Some of those things made me sad, but I wouldn’t trade this for anything.  But I still love them both, and I loved this book for that.

And for those of you who are afraid…remember Phantom Menace?  And Godfather 3? Did it make you hate the earlier movies?  No.  Because you can tell the difference between them.

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