Friday, April 15, 2016

Go Set a Watchman - Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman
Title: Go Set a Watchman
Author: Harper Lee
Publication Date: 7/14/15
Pages: 278
How I Found It: Is there anyone in America who didn't hear about this book last year?
Date Completed: 3/2/16

Summary: Years after her adventures in To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout - now using her given name, Jean Louise - returns home to Maycomb for a visit. Both the town and the people in it she loves prove different than how they live in her memory. 

What I Thought: First of all, I find it completely shameful it took me this long to read this book. I had meant to read it right after it came out last summer. I was going to buy it myself, but my birthday was a month later, so I waited. Then, I didn't get it for my birthday. At that point, I was immersed in other things and the semester started (always a busy time) and I lost track of hunting it down. Thankfully, I got two copies for Christmas! I exchanged one for other literary treats, but held on to one to slowly savor Lee's words. 

And that's exactly what I've been doing.

Rarely does it take me so long to read a book that I am enjoying so much. But, Lee is my favorite author and To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book (and I don't care if you think that's cliche). I knew these would be the last words of hers I ever had the opportunity to read (even before her death this spring), so I wanted to savor them. I wanted to drink in each one, slowly, thoughtfully. I would never read a Lee book for the first time again; I was acutely aware of that while reading this novel.

When the book was released last summer, a lot of people felt betrayed by the differences, particularly in Atticus. The man and father who was so ideal, just, and level-headed in TKAM suddenly is an ailing old man whose perspective on the world and on race is not as utopian and egalitarian as we once believed of him. Does this feel like a betrayal to someone who so passionately loves him in TKAM? For me, at least, the answer to that question is complex.

The first thing to remember is that Lee did not write this as a sequel to TKAM. On the contrary, she wrote GSAW first. Her publisher found the snippets about Jean Louise's childhood and adoration of her father to be the best part of the novel (an astute observation) and encouraged Lee to write about book about that. So, TKAM came second, got published, and went on to become on of the true great American novels. GSAW stayed locked away, an unedited manuscript out of which a masterpiece was born. Knowing the history, it's easier to accept GSAW as a truly separate work. Though the characters may carry the same names and the setting is similar, its as if the two books take place in parallel universes. Threads of recognition are woven throughout, but there are some important distinctions. Once you accept this as a separate work, rather than a sequel, you will enjoy it so much more. 

The two books really serve as tales of Jean Louise's coming of age, in different ways. TKAM tells of her realization of the evil and injustice in the world. She learns about people, the good and the bad, and that someone's outward appearance or story does not define them. Atticus serves as the all-knowing guide on this journey. He is the steady beacon of hope, justice, and equality for Scout and Jem. That's the Atticus I want to name a future child after but, because of my husband's skepticism, will name a future dog after instead. 

GSAW follows Jean Louise through a second transition. When we meet her here as an adult, she has been living in New York. The return to Maycomb opens her eyes to her father's fallibility. Suddenly, she realizes this man she has idolized and strived to be like is imperfect. His approach to race issues, a matter in which Jean Louise had believed him to be different than his compatriots, turns out to be less color blind than she had thought. Her heartbreak at his realization is poignant and intense. The ground on which she has built her own ideologies is suddenly shifting and she can barely hold on. She is forced to recognize her hero's humanity. It's powerful and devastating. She must recognize the Atticus of her childhood memories with the Atticus of reality. Accepting your parents as people, rather than simply as parents, is a transition most must face eventually, though few of us do it as dramatically as Jean Louise.

Though I stand firmly by my decision to view TKAM and GSAW as separate works, it still is interesting to trace the storylines and character developments through both books. At the end of GSAW, Jean Louise really steps up and assumes Atticus's TKAM role as moral compass. She, like the Atticus of old, chooses to set aside assumptions and expectations so as to embrace complexity and the call of her conscience. In the reversal, though, Atticus is suddenly the one in need of acceptance and understanding. I'm not justifying his perspective on racial injustice, merely observing that Jean Louise, as his daughter, must learn to accept him without accepting his views. I found this shift very moving. Just as Atticus of TKAM once extended friendship and fair treatment to the unwanted of Maycomb (the Cunninghams, Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, etc.), so Jean Louise now walks a mile in her own father's shoes. She comes to see him for who he truly is, rather than the idolization of him she had created for herself, and loves him anyway. 

So, back to that question: Is the new Atticus a betrayal to the old one?

I don't think he is; how can he betray someone he never was? If you see the books as two separate works, then the characters merely share a name and biographical details. One cannot betray the other because they are not and were never the same. If you choose to see GSAW as falling into canon with TKAM, then I still think we must offer Atticus some grace. We as readers are experiencing the same journey as Jean Louise. Just as she comes to see past the rose-colored glasses of her childhood, so must the reader do the same. The man we so loved and idolized in TKAM proves to be different and fallible in GSAW. He's not a bad person, just an imperfect one, as we all are. 

I found the book to be beautiful. It's different than TKAM, but Lee's skill with the written word is a constant in both journeys. I know this is one I'll read over and over again, just as I do with TKAM, although it will likely leave me feeling a bit more pragmatic than its predecessor does. 

Quote I Loved: "Had she insight, could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind."

Rating: ★★★★★
Will I Re-Read: Definitely
Other Books By Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird

A Reduced Review: It's not a TKAM sequel, but that shouldn't take away from the poignancy of this new journey. It may not be what we expected, but it's still a powerful story. 

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