Saturday, July 25, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

All of us in our 60s read To Kill a Mockingbird or saw the movie.  Most did both. I often comment in these blogs that--for me--for a book to be a good one--it has to stick around in my head for a while.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 15.  At the time I was into sports books and likely had to be collared by my dad to read this.  My m.o. at 15 was to initially reject dad's recommendations because, after all, what did he know.  But I read it then and it has stuck around in my head for 50 years.

Apparently, I am not alone. When Harper Lee's "new" book Go Set a Watchman went on sale bookstores opened at midnight to sell it to legions of fans who wanted to read the only other novel that Lee ever wrote.

To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and is still in print.  Last night I brought the book Go Set a Watchman to the Ryerson Center to read between games of a basketball doubleheader.  A kid working the concession stands in Toronto saw the cover (which is akin to the cover of To Kill a Mockingbird) and gushed at how she just read Mockingbird "in grade 10" and it was "the best book she ever read."

Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird. From what I have read when reviewing the book's publicity, Watchman was submitted to a publisher and rejected.  However an editor thought it had promise and suggested that the author take a particular episode in the book and expand on it.  That she did and the result was To Kill a Mockingbird.

It is unfortunate that Go Set a Watchman was published.  Lee, now 88, is supposedly not as mentally there as she once was. I imagine a publisher urged her to release the initially written book and she agreed whether she realized what she was doing or not.

It's not just that the book is weak-and it is--it's that a main character in the book, Atticus Finch, the narrator's father, is portrayed as a different sort of man than the one who has been in our head since we read the book or saw Gregory Peck play the role. (The movie is one of those few that stays true to the novel or at least that is how I felt at the time).

Go Set a Watchman,--if it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird as is claimed--had to be written in the mid 50s, shortly after Brown vs. Board of Ed.  Watchman is the story of a daughter who had moved to New York from a tiny Alabama town. She returns home for a visit and when she does, she finds that the God she knew as her egalitarian father, is a segregationist.

This could work except all of us who read Mockingbird remember the father as a man who--despite the small town bigotry--stood tall and defended Tom Robinson who had been accused of raping a white woman when he clearly did not.  Atticus Finch looked right in the eyes of the townsfolk and the white jury and, despite the danger his stand meant for his family, defended Tom Robinson.  This put his daughter in jeopardy only to be rescued by another person marginalized by the standards of the day (played in the movie by a very young Robert Duval).  To kill Tom Robinson or to marginalize Boo Radley would be to kill a mockingbird.  As corny as it sounds I get chilled now thinking of that novel.

Go Set a Watchman portrays Atticus, now in his seventies, as someone who might have--before Brown vs. Board of Ed--championed equality, but is reconsidering when looking front and center at it.  I could deal with that as a premise of a novel, but the book just doesn't develop his devolution. And Atticus's segregationist philosophy is not thoroughly rejected.

The book is a, "girl comes home to visit this one and that one and discovers that the old friends are not who she thought they were." Not especially profound. And the conclusion--certainly by 2015 standards--will not meet a welcome audience by anyone except those clinging to what once was and trying to muster some kind of rationale for the inequality that prevailed.

I can't recommend this book.  There are some references to the trial that is central to Mockingbird, and Calipurnia figures in it meaningfully. There are a couple of humorous flashbacks which I had to assume were autobiographical as they are the kind of wild incidents that seem like "you couldn't make this up."

Bottom line is that Atticus Finch, as he was, is worth preserving.  I don't think he would have morphed into the man depicted in Watchman.  Maybe he would have.  But then, I think Scout would have been able to remind him upon her return of what he had taught her when he defended Tom Robinson--and once sat in a jail cell to make sure that bigoted neighbors did not kill a mockingbird.

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