Today, Hartford Books Examiner reviews “Go Set a Watchman” (Harper) by Harper Lee.
Published in July of this year, the book is Lee’s second full-length novel following her Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960). Though initially touted as a sequel, “Go Set a Watchman”—the manuscript of which was allegedly discovered during an appraisal of Lee’s belongings in 2011—is actually the first draft of what would later become Lee’s masterpiece. Following the phenomenal success of that book, Lee shunned public life and returned to Monroeville, Alabama. Now eighty-nine-years-old, she resides in an assisted living facility.
Given the great, and controversial, fanfare surrounding the book’s publication—a literary event, if ever there was one—it is somewhat difficult to offer an objective look at “Go Set a Watchman.” Of course, the work stands up best when viewed as a companion piece to “To Kill a Mockingbird” as opposed to a singular endeavor (in this reporter’s humble opinion). Therefore, the following reflections are viewed through that lens.
As the story opens, readers are (re)introduced to twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch—“Scout”—as she journeys home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus, in Maycomb, Alabama. Still a practicing attorney, Atticus is struggling with the debilitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis. His sister, Alexandra, lives in the family home and serves as a caretaker of sorts. Atticus also finds help from Henry (“Hank”) Clinton, who works with him—and who also serves as a longtime romantic interest for Jean Louise. Now accustomed to the more progressive ways of the city, Jean Louise immediately feels a sense of claustrophobia ensnare her as she attempts to acclimate to a post-Brown v. Board of Education south in which the NAACP has begun to exert its influence.
Most troubling to Jean Louise is the discovery that Atticus and Hank belong to the local Citizen’s Council. She perceives this as an indication that both men are themselves prejudiced—a particularly grievous offense, given the pedestal that she has always viewed Atticus to sit upon. Readers, with the benefit of hindsight, may very well see Atticus as more of a realist than a racist. Jean Louise, however, is unable to view this revelation dispassionately. And therein lies the book’s major theme: disillusionment. (“To Kill a Mockingbird”—narrated through the innocent eyes of child—presented the opposite: idealism; conversely, “Go Set a Watchman” represents the harsh awakening of adulthood.)
Overall, the book lacks the beauty and polish of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Indeed, Jean Louise’s thoughts are often rambling and incomplete (though one could argue this to be a stylistic choice; after all, it does mirror her angst-ridden mind); scenes, too, often appear as vignettes rather than being fully fleshed out. Further, her recollections of childhood hijinks often prove more engaging than those of her adult experiences. Editor Tay Hohoff, then, is proven correct in her instincts to have had Lee re-write the story from that perspective. Taken as a whole, however, the two stories illustrate the evolution of Harper Lee as a writer and of Jean Louise Finch as a fully-realized character. That alone may help to legitimize this most recent publication.
Ultimately, “Go Set a Watchman” is a raw but powerful novel that bravely tackles issues of race and injustice. While the book would likely have been lost to obscurity had its author not risen to prominence prior to its release, its timeless relevance can now be appreciated. In asking Jean Louise to accept her father as a human being possessing the requisite complexities and faults, Harper Lee asks the same of us. Given Jean Louise’s great difficulty with reconciling her idealized image of her father with the reality, is it any wonder that readers have found themselves challenged? But it’s exactly that challenge—and need for tolerance—that makes this story worthwhile …