#5: A Book Published this Year

Go Set a Watchman

by Harper Lee

Synopsis:

Jean Louise Finch arrives in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama for a two-week visit from Manhattan. She fits herself back into the small-town life: she goes out with her sometimes-boyfriend Henry, attends ladies’ tea with her Aunt Alexandra, spends time with her father Atticus and her uncle Jack, and sleeps in her childhood bedroom. On this visit, however, Jean Louise drops in on a meeting of Maycomb’s leaders and discovers that her father may not be the man she thought he was.

Reasons to Love GSAW Like You Love TKAM:

  • Episodic chapters/stories that stand alone
    • In TKAM, several story lines exist—Boo Radley, Mrs. Dubose, Tom Robinson. They all intersect to illustrate different lessons learned by Scout and Jem. However, many of the episodes in both novels could be read almost as short stories. One that comes to mind, for example, the TKAM scene where Scout’s teacher explains prejudice in regards to the Nazi treatment of Jews, but completely misses the fact that she teaches in a segregated classroom. Similar bits exist in GSAW as well. On a slight tangent, this technique exemplifies Ms. Lee’s writing style; from the very beginning of GSAW, it reads just like TKAM (except it’s in third person instead of first!).
    • It is easy to see the parts of GSAW that Harper Lee reworked to create TKAM, specifically in flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood. Some descriptive sentences are nearly identical in the two novels. The characters initially drawn in GSAW retain the same features and quirks in TKAM. It is impressive, however, that Ms. Lee took the only briefly mentioned trial of Tom Robinson and wove such a classic story from just a few sentences.
  • Witty and poignant one-liners

I wrote down so many quotes! Some of my favorites:

      • “The course of English Literature would have been decidedly different had Mr. Wordsworth owned a power mower.” –p. 143 (HAHAHAHA!)
      • “Every man is an island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman is his conscience.” –p. 264
      • “It’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are.” –p. 269
      • “Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends” –p. 271
  • Teaches without being preachy
    • All of the lessons that the reader learns throughout the novel, they learn alongside Jean Louise. By standing in her shoes, the reader can see things from her perspective and participate in conversations that Jean Louise has with Calpurnia, Uncle Jack, Henry, and Atticus. Things are “logic-ed out” and conclusions come out of well thought-out and lengthy, two-sided discussions instead of just through summary narrative.
    • I love how Harper Lee bookends the lessons Jean Louise learns during her time in Maycomb with two instances of Scout entering a car. At the beginning of the novel, Jean Louise gets into a vehicle, hits her head on the door facing, and summarily complains about how cars aren’t made how they used to be. Similarly, at the end of the novel, Jean Louise again enters a car, but this time “she was careful not to bump her head” (p. 278). Such a simple discussion of automobile construction perfectly illustrates the theme of the novel: sometimes you have to change what you do to fit the current situation. This doesn’t mean you change your beliefs (quit driving the car), you just have to adjust them to unique situations (you duck your head).
  • Real, authentic, dimensional characters
    • Uncle Jack: Although he plays a very small role in TKAM, Uncle Jack is one of my favorite characters because of the adult way in which he relates to Scout and Jem. He speaks to them on their level. In GSAW, Uncle Jack is the voice of reason, and ironically he is extremely eccentric. When Jean Louise loses her mind over the courthouse meeting, Uncle Jack helps Jean Louise understand the truth behind what she saw.
    • Aunt Alexandra: While the adult Scout has learned how to interact with Aunt Alexandra, the childhood fear of her remains. Aunt Alexandra’s role in GSAW gives more depth to her character (she was a little flat in TKAM). She demonstrates how strong a southern woman can be while still playing the traditional role of upstanding caretaker and hostess.
    • Jean Louise: While it is weird to see Scout smoking cigarettes and using less-than-ladylike language, it’s really not all that far-fetched. (Anyone recall “pass the damn ham?”) Harper Lee did an excellent job of creating six-year-old Scout from this grown woman who came first from her imagination.
    • Atticus Finch: Atticus is the big surprise to everyone. In GSAW, Atticus does seem to be racist (given where and when he grew up, it’s not surprising though). HOWEVER, even if Atticus does harbor some idea that whites are superior to blacks, it DOES NOT trump his belief in justice and right and wrong and the rights that people have. In the short discussion of the Tom Robinson trial (in GSAW, he is found innocent, interestingly), Atticus took on the case because he believed Tom to be innocent—it had nothing to do with the color of anyone’s skin. Atticus’s convictions remain the same throughout his entire life, but Scout sees a wider view of his actions and beliefs as an adult than she does as a child. It stands to reason that the child Scout would see her father as the model of perfection, knight-in-shining-armor type, while the adult Jean Louise sees him as an adult, with all his flaws and faults.

Final Thoughts:

After hearing about the publication of GSAW, I was apprehensive because I thought Harper Lee probably only published this novel as a result of coercion and/or someone taking advantage of her. Furthermore, after seeing some of the reviews, I really wasn’t sure what to expect, and I hadn’t set my expectations very high. (For the record, I only read headlines, none of the reviews or articles themselves, so this review is totally my own opinion and not colored with anyone else’s.) The novel pleasantly surprised me. I feel that Harper Lee waited until the atmosphere of the country was right to publish. While it’s not the final, edited, polished novel it would have been with some additional editorial insight, the “bones” hold up to scrutiny.

I don’t think that GSAW will ever be a classic like TKAM, but I think that it deserves an open-minded read. It provides interesting insights into the writing process, the creative abilities of the author, and also a glimpse into the climate in a small, southern town during the civil rights movement. Many of the situations Ms. Lee deals with remain relevant today, which is always the mark of a good, well-written book.

Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:

My Rating: B+

  • Beloved characters, distinct writing style, lovely descriptions
  • “Rough” novel leaves some gaps (and some spelling mistakes, etc.)
  • Not quite a “classic” like its sister

Clean Factor: B

  • Fairly rough language by multiple characters
  • Topics of racial tension, etc may not be suitable for all audiences
  • Otherwise clean

Book Clubbishness: A

  • Plenty of controversial topics to discuss
  • Connection to TKAM, characters, setting, etc provides even more discussion

Educational Potential: B

  • AUTHOR’S CRAFT! You can really see the writing process come to life when you look at the chronology of the books versus the order in which they were written, the descriptive passages, and the character development.
  • I wouldn’t use this in a high school classroom like TKAM; I think it would work better as an independent read or in a college situation.

Photo credit/Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Go-Set-Watchman-Harper-Lee/dp/0062409859/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1440716810&sr=8-1&keywords=go+set+a+watchman&pebp=1440716859945&perid=14FVQVPEXX8EZ5P1QJWF

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