Review: GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

UnknownGO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee Harper / Collins, July 2015 – 3 Stars

Blurb: Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch—”Scout”—returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town, and the people dearest to her.

Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past—a journey that can only be guided by one’s own conscience.

Review: This story picks up almost twenty years after the classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird takes place. Jean Louise aka Scout Finch returns home to Maycomb, Alabama on a two-week vacation from her job. She may be an adult in years, but in other ways she remains the young girl who charged through life and served as a witness when her father Atticus defended an innocent African American man accused of rape. Still “color-blind” as her Uncle Jack says, Scout shares stories of her life up north with Atticus and his young associate, Hank Clinton, the so-called best friend of her brother, Jem. Hank never appeared in To Kill A Mockingbird, and Lee explains this by saying he was only there during the school year when he boarded across the street from the Finches. Yet her first book also had scenes from those times and it seems odd to have Hank play such a huge part now, when he didn’t then.

Readers will catch up with Aunt Alexandra who now lives with and looks after Atticus. Her husband went off to his fishing camp and never returned. While Jem died of a heart attack two years before the book opens, it is easy to appreciate that Scout and Atticus still grieve for him. We never learn what happened to Boo Radley or Scout’s childhood frenemy, Walter Cunningham. Of course, he could be the owner of the ice cream shop, but why wouldn’t he say so? Calpurnia, now retired, lives in The Quarters near her family.

Set in the 1950s, the book refers to the Montgomery bus strikes and “that Mississippi business” when Scout tells her father that not getting a conviction was the worst blunder since Pickett’s charge during the Civil War. It lends credence to the notion that most white people who live in the South are violent racists. Unless the reader remembers the social upheaval of the early civil rights movement, they may draw a mental blank on Scout’s theory. It seems probable she’s talking about the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers who were acquitted of beating, then lynching the 14 year-old boy. It’s difficult to be completely engaged in a book when one needs to stop and do research the setting.

Another of the key points that Scout and her father frequently discuss relates to Supreme Court decisions that infringe on the 10th Amendment. More research if a reader doesn’t remember that this amendment deals with the separation between federal and state governments, limiting federal powers. Supreme Court decisions during the 1950s impacted the Civil Rights movement and could be considered to also impact state rights. Still, it’s not clear exactly which decision most upsets Scout or Atticus if it’s Brown vs. Board of Education or Browder vs. Gayle – bus desegregation.

In addition, in this post World War II period, several of the young men are veterans. Still, the reader only hears specifically about Jem, Dill and Hank – it’s not clear if any of the “Negroes” from Maycomb County served, although more than 1.2 million African Americans served in uniform on the home-front, in Europe and the Pacific. Another glitch is that Jem supposedly inherited his “weak” heart from his mother. Why wasn’t this medical problem discovered when he enlisted in the military? It also isn’t clear what Scout did during the war to support the troops and she would certainly remember.

Readers should recall from the media blitz surrounding it that Go Set A Watchman was actually written before To Kill A Mockingbird and provided the impetus for Lee to write what is now a literary classic. This particular manuscript was lost and then found again only a short time before publication. Despite the developmental flaws, Go Set A Watchman is an interesting read, a literary sketch that lacks the depth of To Kill A Mockingbird. Yet it provides a view of a time when and where the world began to change. People either had to evolve or expire. More foreshadowing of the ongoing cultural and social revolution would have helped the story. It remains wonderful to reconnect with Scout in this early work by Harper Lee. Regardless of the flaws, this story showcases sparks of genius so that it’s not difficult to see the emergence of an immensely talented author who told an unforgettable story.

Review provided by Shannon Kennedy for her column Shannon’s Space in the May 2016 edition of The Book Breeze.

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