Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review - Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

Scout (Jean Louise Finch) returns to Maycomb from New York after the Supreme Court rules to desegregate schools and discovers that the town has changed beyond her comprehension.

For spoilers I will use Rot13, so if you see something that looks like a jumble of letters, find a Rot13 decrypter to read them.

So, I read To Kill a Mockingbird again earlier this year in anticipation of reading this book, which I ordered literally the day it was first available on After the kerfuffle about it possibly being released against her will I considered canceling my order, but the truth is, from the moment I heard it was the book that eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, I wanted very badly to read and see what the editor had seen. Unlike many people, I did not read Harper Lee's classic until I was an adult. In fact, it's been less than five years since I first read it. So I do not have a deep love of the book earned by reading it in school. In fact, I found it to be a shockingly racist read, both casually and overtly. Now, seeing the source material for it, I understand why.

Let's get this clear right off the bat: Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, it's the raw source material that book was crafted from. It is not entirely the same universe... the reason Atticus took the case at the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird is different, as is the outcome of the trial. And all that is mentioned only in passing, not as the key events around which the story turns. This is not to be taken as some definitive version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman touches on some of the events in the earlier published book, but it is a completely different book with a different aim and perhaps even a different audience.

Lots of people have talked about the racism of Atticus in Go Set a Watchman. I was surprised to hear people complain about it, as it is definitely there, if only between the lines, in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is a man of his times, and there is no possibility that a man of that age born and raised in that place is not racist. The same is true of Scout. Wrna Ybhvfr oryvrirf fur vfa'g enpvfg nsgre yvivat va Arj Lbex, ohg vg'f gurer va ure npgvbaf naq oryvrsf nf jryy. Gur qvssrerapr orgjrra gur enpvfz bs Nggvphf naq gur enpvfz bs fb znal bgure crbcyr va gur Fbhgu vf gung Nggvphf vf njner bs uvf bja snvyvatf, nygubhtu ur fher qbrfa'g frrz nfunzrq bs gurz.

Naq gung'f gur pber bs gur obbx, npghnyyl. Wrna Ybhvfr vf fghaarq ol gur enpvfz fur frrf, ohg guebhtu ure hapyr naq, gb fbzr rkgrag, Nggvphf, fur fgnegf gb frr ubj vg nyy svgf gbtrgure naq jul gurl oryvrir gur jnl gurl qb. Gur obbx vf n wbhearl bs svaqvat bhg jung Fpbhg arire xarj. Naq V nyzbfg rail gur ernqref jub tb ba gung wbhearl jvgu Wrna Ybhvfr. Gur barf jub unir nyjnlf uryq Nggvphf hc nf fbzr fbeg bs vqrny, bayl gb or pehfurq jura gurl svaq bhg ur'f whfg n zna.

Ohg vg'f nyfb vzcbegnag gb erzrzore gung Wrna Ybhvfr, qrfcvgr ure cebgrfgngvbaf bgurejvfr, vf nyfb enpvfg. Fur'f yrff njner bs vg guna ure sngure naq hapyr, ohg V fhfcrpg ol gur raq bs gur obbx fur'f ortha gb frr jurer vg fgnegf naq raqf, naq znlor fur'yy trg gb gur cbvag jurer fur frrf gung "pbybeoyvaq" vf whfg nabgure pbqr jbeq. Fur znl npprcg crbcyr nf gurl ner, ohg fur'f fgvyy irel zhpu n cneg bs ure raivebazrag. Ure qvfphffvba jvgu Urael nobhg ubj fur pna trg njnl jvgu orvat n gbzobl orpnhfr fur'f n Svapu vf cenpgvpnyyl n yrpgher ba juvgr cevivyrtr pbhpurq va rpbabzvp/pynff grezf.

That said, it's clear to me why Lee's original editor suggested taking out the bits about Scout's childhood and forming a book around them. It was a brilliant way to tell about the people and the place without inserting a painful amount of heart-wrenching drama about what was then almost current events. And oddly, thanks to the original book being a classic, Go Set a Watchman has the potential to affect many readers almost as painfully as Jean Louise was affected in the book. Without that years-long set up, there's no way this book would be having the extreme impact it is.

I think To Kill a Mockingbird is undeniably a better book than Go Set a Watchman. I also think this is a very good time for the release of the original source material. People need to go back and reassess their assumptions - about Atticus, about Scout - about racism and family and what the world expects. I found it well worth reading, but your mileage may vary depending on how you feel about Lee's original work and especially how you feel about Atticus.