Book Review of Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’

I actually found this book (1st rough draft thought it may be) politically relevant to today’s culture and historically useful for the today’s youth. Read on if you don’t believe me. The 1st reviews I heard about this book left me questioning the worth of its read – but the biggest complaints are because of the one fact that the complainers have confused:  It wasn’t ready to be printed into a book in the 1st place! It was a rough draft. I think that if Harper Lee (or someone else that cared enough) revised, rewrote parts, worked on smoother transitions and confusing dialogue and arguments – then this book could have been almost as good as ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ (for simplification purposes I will use the acronym TKAM for that book for now on and ‘Go Set a Watchman’ will become GSAW.)  Yes, GSAW needed editing but its basic premise was an idea worthy of a book of its own.  I know the original editing process turned GSAW into TKAM – but really, they should be two stand alone books or GSAW a solid sequel. Therefore, keeping in mind that GSAW was an unedited 1st draft, I rather enjoyed it and think it is worth a read. I will recommend it to all, with the caveat to keep expectations low because of the ‘unedited, 1st draft’ distinction.

To summarize the book in a nutshell, it’s about a woman who has been living away from home and comes back to visit her hometown and family. While there she discovers how the town has changed and/or not changed along with her family and boyfriend. She also has the unenjoyable experience of removing her father from the pedestal she had him placed on her entire life and has to come to terms with the fact that their life views are not the same – in other words, she has to grow up. Maturity doesn’t come easy for the girl who was able to do whatever she wanted her entire life, so her Uncle, Dr. Jack Finch, dutifully helps her along. (A conversation, by the way, that had it been edited and worked on- could’ve held some very deep truths for society and cultural relevancy in today’s world.) While home, Scout (who is now mostly referred to by her given name Jean Louise) does have some reminiscing of the old days and we learn some new stories as well as some repetitive information given to us in that unedited way that makes it less pleasurable to read than the smooth transitions in TKAM. But who doesn’t enjoy reading about Scout, Jem and Dill no matter how it’s written?

The title of the book, odd at first glance, is better explained when Jean Louise goes to church with her family and hears a sermon by the pastor, Mr. Stone, preaching over Isaiah 21:6

‘For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

After this Jean Louise thinks,

“Mr. Stone set a watchman in church yesterday, he should’ve provided me with one.”

This is foreshadowing of what will happen with Jean Louise. The Bible references of watchmen (lookouts on the city walls) often appear in stories of prophetic visions of destruction.  Watchmen are the first to see trouble coming and there was  trouble coming for Jean Louise.  It alludes to her expectations of her father Atticus Finch and the disillusionment she discovers when she find his ideals do not agree with her own. Another (albeit random) foreshadowing occurrence was that Jean Louise kept bumping her head every time she tried to enter a vehicle (until the very end, after her revelation, when she finally found herself able to climb into a vehicle without bumping her head.)

We meet the boyfriend, Henry ‘Hank’ Clinton, right in the beginning since he picks up Scout (it’s more fun to say Scout, so I’m calling her that from now on) at the train station and drives her home to find her Aunt Alexandra living with Atticus since he has rheumatoid arthritis and needs help sometimes. I’m not going to tell the entire story, but I do want to highlight some of the points of discussion that happened later on while Scout was arguing with Uncle Dr. Jack Finch and Atticus. It helps to know a little history because they talk about Reconstruction (referring to the rebuilding of the South after the Civil War) and about another ‘possible’ second reconstruction happening again in the 1950’s when the story took place because of the recent Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Education which forced the South to desegregate their schools, etc. Dr. Finch says, “The have-nots have risen and have demanded their due – sometimes more than their due. The haves are restricted from getting more.” He goes on to say,

“As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.” (A bit prescient of today if you ask me!)

Another interesting dialogue happens with Scout and her Uncle Jack when he explains the origins of redneck racism (my words) in very simplistic terms – he basically said that before reconstruction the only thing that poor white trash had over negroes was the color of their skin that made them better. But after reconstruction that breed of white man found himself in open, direct economic competition with freed negroes – thus they fought to preserve their identity the only way ignorance knows how – by putting down their competition. (As good an explanation as I’ve ever heard and while I don’t condone it, this does make me understand it how it came about.) When Scout accuses Dr. Finch of being cynical with these views, his reply is ,

“Cynical, hell. I’m a healthy old man with a constitutional mistrust of paternalism and government in large doses.” (How many people feel this same way about government today?!!!!  ALOT!)

Another excellent quote from Dr. Finch that is relevant to current society is this doozy:

“The only thing I’m afraid of about this country is that its government will someday become so monstrous that the smallest person in it will be trampled underfoot, and then it wouldn’t be worth living in. The only thing in America that is still unique in this tired world is that a man can go as far as his brains will take him or he can go to hell if he wants to, but it won’t be that way much longer.”

He also says, “What was incidental to the War Between the States is incidental to the issue in the war we’re in now, and is incidental to your own private war.” Here, I think he was referring to the fact that the government has its own personal agenda that has nothing to do with common decency, common sense, or conscience. (Such as the government does things in regards to business interests of its own, i.e. manufacturing v. cotton v. farming, etc.) But there are just allusions and we must make our own opinions on the statements made since it was a draft. (insert irritable sarcasm here.)

Moving on now to Scout’s argument with her father, Atticus also makes some enlightening statements. He said that Jefferson felt that “A man couldn’t vote simply because he was a man, in Jefferson’s eyes. He had to be a responsible man. A vote was a privilege a man attained for himself in a live-and-let-live economy.” Argue how you may, but this makes common sense. I don’t think anyone wants a person out there voting that is ignorant of who and what the vote is for. And if people today thought of it more as a privilege than a right, I think more people would respect and educate themselves about the issues.

In this decade I think Atticus would be a Libertarian or a member of the Tea Party movement because he says, “I’d like very much to be left alone to manage my own affairs in a live-and-let-live economy.” He also tells Scout,

“It might benefit you to go back and look at what some of our founding fathers really believed, instead of relying so much on what people these days tell you they believed.”  GREAT POINT ATTICUS!

Atticus thinks of the NAACP as a group of Yankees who have no clue what is going on in the South or what it is like to live and work there. Atticus says, “I’d like for my state to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP which knows next to nothing about its business and cares less. That organization has stirred up more trouble in the past five years-…” (AND it’s still stirring the pot!) But Atticus is an intelligent, mature man and is okay that his daughter feels differently about these issues. He even encourages her individual thoughts. He tells Scout,

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience.” (Oh how I wish we could get this through to our current society so we could lose the PC nonsense!)

Atticus did make some other statements that were racist and negative comments that I won’t repeat, but they do reveal a part of him that we (and Scout) didn’t realize before – he’s human and NOT perfect. He does have flaws and that is why Scout is having such a hard time accepting him – she had him fixed in her mind like a God and now here she is discovering he is just a man, flawed like the rest of us. Atticus goes on to explain to Scout that she’s heard some offensive talk since she’d been home but instead of striking it down she’s turned and ran. She’s effectively said, ‘I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them,’ and he tells her, “You better take time honey, otherwise you’ll never grow. You’ll be the same at 60 as you are now.” He goes on to tell her that SHE is the BIGOT. To this she takes extreme offense and pulls out the dictionary to read aloud the definition.

“Bigot”, she read, “Noun. One obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion.”

(Ok, who here doesn’t see the IRONY in this???!!! Guess who the ‘Bigots’ are in today society? The ones screaming the loudest that everyone else is that’s who!!!! And they come from both the FAR LEFT and FAR RIGHT in politics. The ones who conveniently forget that the left wing and the right wing are both part of the same bird.)

There is another dichotomy to the story and that is Scout’s relationship with Hank. Henry Clinton was born to white trash and ended up being raised by different people but because of being best friends with Jem in their youth he became forever linked to Atticus who helped guide him to a better life. He actually replaced Jem in Atticus’ law office and was set to become the eventual inheritor of the business. He also had been in love with Scout for a very long time and had been trying to talk her into marrying him. When Scout admits to her Aunt Alexandra that she is seriously considering it, her Aunt blows a fuse and tells her that she can’t because Henry Clinton has white trash roots and Scout is above him. She basically says you don’t inter-marry with that. Later on even her logical Uncle Jack says the same thing. So not only is there still racism alive in Scout’s hometown but there is also ‘classism’ – in which I guess Scout partially agrees with because she never does marry Hank. (She never married in real life either, right? Wonder if it was because the only man she ever loved was from white trash? Doesn’t that seem silly in this day and age?) But in any case, it’s another line of the story that could’ve been developed further to relate more meaningful ideas and dare I say, solutions?

I really hate that Harper Lee didn’t rework this book and turn it into a sequel that offered up the timeless life lessons like TKAM produced, because it seems that she had the seeds to do just that and she left them uncultivated to the disappointment of her many fans.

I’m going to leave this book review with this last little gem from Dr. Finch’s final discussion with Scout.

“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends…It’s one of the oddities of this world.”

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Filed under Fiction, Random Thoughts, Reading

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