Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Review of Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. July, 2015.  HarperCollins. 288 pages. For adults or mature teens.

Twenty-six year-old Jean Louise Finch leaves New York to return to her small hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, for her annual visit to see her remaining family and her oldest friend, Hank.  However, this visit unexpectedly proves to be a turning point in her life and in her relationship with her father, Hank, and the whole town.

Jean Louise has always idolized her father, Atticus, believing him to be perfectly honorable, just, fair, and decent.  She has always loved Hank, and despite not being in love with him, thought that she might someday marry him, an idea that scandalizes her Aunt Alexandra because Hank is not "their kind".  Hank came up from what proper Macomb society views as "trash" and has had to work hard for everything he has and now works with Atticus in the practice of law.

Over the next few days, Jean Louise witnesses things that cause her to question everything:  her upbringing, her relationship with the woman who helped raise her, Hank, and above all, her father's morality and integrity.  As she wrestles with this crisis of identity and conscience, she remembers and re-examines various events in her childhood and her relationships.  Finally, it comes to a head and she confronts Hank, then Atticus and ultimately finds herself.

My Thoughts
I liked To Kill A Mockingbird so much, I was almost afraid to read this book, especially amid all the controversy.  But they are really two very different books, so much so, that it's easy to forget Jean Louise is Scout.  Whereas To Kill A Mockingbird also deals with racism, it is treated more simplistically and not the sole focus of the whole book.  The book is also full of funny childhood exploits, and the endearing relationships between Scout and the reclusive neighbor who ended up saving her life.  I found To Kill A Mockingbird to be a more *enjoyable* read, but Go Set A Watchman to be a more *powerful* read.

Go Set A Watchman is set amid the turmoil of the civil rights movement, and shows how truly complex equality, racisim, and civil rights are, and ties them into the age-old arguments of federal versus states' rights, big government versus the individual.  It also shows the emotional turmoil Jean Louise feels when facing that the father she has always idolized is not perfect and has opinions about people and race that she finds immoral and is viscerally opposed to, and feeling that she no longer fits in with the people and town she grew up with.

Go Set A Watchman is a very compelling, profound, and well-written story that even now can make one re-examine one's beliefs and shed new insights on race-relations in the South, and I was not disappointed after all.  While To Kill A Mockingbird is often read and enjoyed by teens and middle-grade readers as well as adults, I think Go Set A Watchman would be best for adults and older teens with the knowledge and maturity to understand the true complexities of racism and the civil rights movement, as well as the emotional journey Jean Louise goes through when separating herself from her father.  There is nothing horribly inappropriate (there is the brief mention of incest, a reference to the rape case in the prior book, and mild language); I just think much of it would be lost on younger readers.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoyed To Kill A Mockingbird, someone who is interested in states' rights, civil rights, and racial equality from a cultural or historical perspective, or someone interested in stories dealing with the struggle of adult children to separate from their parents and establish their own identity or reconcile reality with their idealized childhood perceptions.  I also should mention that I didn't think Atticus was portrayed as negatively as I was expecting from what I had heard prior to reading the book.

I don't know what to make of all the controversy about the discovery of this manuscript and whether Ms. Lee was competent to consent to publication; I can only say I certainly hope everything is on the up and up and she was not taken advantage of or manipulated.  While I am glad that this story was not initially published (otherwise we would have missed out on the wonderful story of Scout and Jem in To Kill A Mockingbird), I am glad to have had the opportunity to read it now.

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