July 31, 2015

Book Review—Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

The much discussed release from Harper Lee. It has had many tongues wagging, from rumours of shady dealings by lawyers and publishers to fears that it will taint Lee’s legacy. Now that it has been released we can finally see for ourselves.

26 year old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returns to Maycomb from New York to visit her family. Her visit comes at a time when many changes are happening in the country, particularly regarding race relations. But on this return trip she discovers that all the small changes that she has been witnessing in Maycomb are but a precursor to the sweeping social shift that will affect everyone, including her much loved and admired father, Atticus.

It is difficult not to make comparisons with To Kill a Mockingbird, Watchman being an earlier incarnation.  The most apparent difference is that Watchman does not have the charm of its successor. Gone is the child narrator, and although the mix of folk tales and tall tales that so enlivened Mockingbrid are here, these whimsicalities are only shades, with the dialogues and tales that would, in subsequent rewrites, become the exchanges that gave Mockingbird its uniqueness and heft apparent only in sketches.

The South’s struggle with segregation is still present, but where Mockingbird focused on the personal Watchman deals with the political dimensions. Its treatment of Atticus is more complex, Mockingbird being, after all, Scout’s reminiscences of her heroic father. In Watchman this idolisation is replaced with disillusion. He may have upheld Tom Robinson’s rights, but that does not mean this old Southern gent isn’t worried about Southern heritage, including all the fears of miscegenation, worries about state’s rights and individual liberties, and a mistrust of outside forces like the federal government and NAACP that go along with the Southern mentality. But even these passages are often laden with stereotypes and awkward phrasing, giving reminders that Watchman, even in published form, is a draft, both in how it handles its subject matter and also in its flow.

Despite its short comings it is not the death knell of Lee’s reputation. When viewed alongside Mockingbird it provides a unique study not just into the creation of a much loved classic, but of an author who began with an admirable if muddled story and was able, with some help from an editor, to craft it into a fascinating tale.

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