Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman

When Harper Lee's new novel Go Set a Watchman was released on July 14th, I looked at it longingly on the display at the grocery store.

I keep myself to a pretty strict book-buying policy: I don't buy any books unless I've already read them, know I love them, and know they are worth owning (and worth re-reading). Usually this policy works really well for me. My bank account appreciates it, my bookshelves appreciate it, and my library gets very faithful patronage from me. But every now and then, like when a popular new release comes out, I reconsider this policy. Nothing has tempted me so badly as Go Set a Watchman to break tradition and buy a book I hadn't read. I was #107 on the wait list at my library. I suspected I would like it. And I wanted to be cool like everybody else and read it NOW.

However, I exercised restraint, told myself to wait it out, and lo and behold, my library came through for me! I don't know if a bunch of people dropped their holds after hearing the spoilers, or if my library system decided to invest in a few more copies, but I got the email notifying me the book was in just a month after the release date. Then I devoured the book in two days.

So, am I glad I waited?

In all honesty, I would not have considered it a waste of money had I purchased this book. And while I don't *love* it enough to go out and buy it right now, should I ever happen across a copy I would be more than pleased to find a home for it on my shelves.

In other words, I completely recommend this book. Like I said, you don't need to buy it, but it is very, very well worth the reading experience.

I know there have been a ton of mixed reviews, and a lot of people saying they didn't like it, or don't want to read it at all because of the spoilers about Atticus' fall from grace. Look, I know plenty has already been written about this book elsewhere, but let me throw my two cents in the ring and see if I can convince you to pick up the book yourself (assuming you haven't already).

First off, the caveats. This is an unedited manuscript, and that shows through. It was not as polished as most published books, and certainly not as polished as To Kill A Mokingbird. There were awkward transitions and areas of excess where I'm sure a skilled editor would have encouraged cuts and revisions. It wasn't perfect.

That being said, it was still very powerful. The saddest part about reading this book was realizing that while some of the specific issues are no longer current (thankfully no one is spouting trash about the genetic inferiority of black people these days), most of the big ideas and problems these characters grappled with are still being fought out today. It almost felt like the Civil Rights movement happened, yet here we are sixty years later and these same problems are just as relevant. That was depressing to realize.

But I must say that I loved the way Harper Lee grappled with these issues of race, and other problems like losing your child-like faith in the goodness of other human beings (especially your father), in such a beautifully raw, powerful, and unique way. I would love to read this book again just to think through the way she presented certain ideas, and then turned them upside down.

For instance (*spoilers ahead* read at your own risk), Scout clearly seems to hold the moral high ground with her staunch position in favor of race equality, but in the very last scene her uncle calls her a bigot, because she is intolerant of the views her father holds. She doesn't want her father, or anyone, to hold those beliefs, so in a way, that does make her intolerant. Atticus is actually set up as the more tolerant figure because he allows all people to express their opinions without judgment, even opinions he may or may not personally agree with. I thought that was a super interesting turn, and really made me question and think about what tolerance is. Tolerance is always touted as a virtue, but is it truly a virtue to tolerate the immoral positions and speech of others? Harper Lee would seem to be saying so.

There were many more complex issues like this that Lee addressed, and that deserve closer consideration and unpacking. There were layers to all her arguments, and I actually liked how she tried to be sympathetic to all sides. I'd like to think that if I had lived in the South during this era, I would've been a Scout, with the strong conviction in the equality of all people, but after reading this book, I realized that so often we are steeped in a cultural tradition and history where we grasp at justifications, and can't see our own faults. I probably would've been one of the silly girls at the party, spouting the language of the men around me. Scout asks herself over and over again how she grew up in such a place and completely missed out on the message everyone else seemed so indoctrinated with, and that is a question I assume Lee asked herself. Through the uncle and the speech of Atticus, Lee outlined the history and position and of the Southern White Man, the tradition he came out of, and the convoluted justification for segregation. While Lee still firmly condemned this position, she also allowed room for compassion, and I was fascinated by that sympathy.

Let's get to the elephant in the room. Yes, Atticus turns out to be a racist segregationist. This is heart-breaking for both Scout and the reader. Some of his language is truly shocking and disappointing. I can see how this would ruin the reading experience for some, especially those who really love the TKAM Atticus. I know some people choose to read these as two completely separate novels, where one story doesn't have to touch the other story, and that's fine. There are enough differences that you can think of the two Atticuses as completely separate people and it would work.

However, I personally found that this turn made Atticus a more real and believable character. Yes, it knocked him off the pedestal, yes it was devastating, but it was also humanizing. It's hard to explain, but it made him harder to love and easier to love at the same time. It was complex, but I found it to be a net positive complex, not a net negative. It didn't ruin it for me.

I do not guarantee that everyone will love this book, but I do think the ideas and the issues are explored in a complex and nuanced way, and I think it is worth reading about them just to consider them. Besides the complexity, there are also many moments of fun and humor. There are flashbacks to different parts of Scout's childhood (she is called Jean Louise in the book, but I have a hard time thinking of her as anything but Scout), and those vignettes are hilarious and memorable (and very likely the reason Lee's editor suggested she rewrite the book from the point of view of that childhood Scout). Scout herself is still one of the best female protagonists in print today. She is fiery and fantastic. There is much to love in this book.

It may not be the best or most polished book I've ever read, but I think this one will stay with me for a while. I also think I will want to revisit it at some point and think through these ideas again. It is well worth the read. I recommend 100%.

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