Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

To Kill a Mockingbird, like many people, is one of my most favorite books. Of course, I have plenty of favorites but To Kill a Mockingbird (referred to as TKaM from this point on) was one of those few assigned readings that I adored in school. I went back to it after high school and read it again, then again after college. I wanted to read it once more prior to Go Set a Watchman's release, but didn't have the time. 

Go Set a Watchman is receiving a lot of mixed reviews so I'll try to break this up as clearly as I can. I feel, first and foremost, that the reviews are edging toward negative due to the majority of the publicity it has received. Harper Lee is famously known for shunning the lime light given to her due to the success of TKaM. Her elder sister and lawyer was fiercely protective of Harper and for years, Harper made it very clear that she would not publish anything else nor be interviewed. It does seem strange that only a few months after her sister's death there was an announcement that Harper Lee would have Go Set a Watchman published.

There's a lot of distrust and speculation driven toward Harper Lee's new lawyer. She has given multiple accounts of how and when she has come across the draft of Go Set a Watchman and Alabama had an elderly abuse investigation done. All of this negativity certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouth when concerning this book.

On one hand, the fans of TKaM rejoiced to hear that Harper Lee would publish another book, but it was quickly followed by uncertainty and dismay. Is this what Harper Lee really wants or is she being forced to do something against her will because the lawyer has more control than we realize? These speculations have followed the creation and publication of this book and still are spoken of today. For me, personally, I found myself struggling over whether or not I wanted to even purchase Go Set a Watchman. On one hand, I wanted to pay for this book and show (among the masses who have also bought the book) that I support her and her artistry. On the other hand, I didn't want to support the lawyer who honestly leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

I've spoken to many friends who are bookish and had interest in Go Set a Watchman and they all feel the same way. Support the writer... but not wanting to support the lawyer. It generally makes one feel a little uncomfortable and uncertain about the entire situation. But... I still purchased the book and even still I feel a little strange about that purchase. 

With all this negativity, I feel it has been reflected into the general reviews of the book. Many people are quick to point out the story behind the book's publication and focus more on that then the book itself. So with all of this out of the way, let's take a look at the contents of the book.

Go Set a Watchman is a great read for any writer. Yes, writer. Not reader, specifically (but we'll get to that). TKaM was actually derived from Go Set a Watchman as advised by Harper's editor. He wanted to know more about the main character's, Jean Louise, childhood. One of the struggles of progressing as a writer is the discovery that not all that you write is great. You may love a particular point of your story but an editor or publish may rather focus on another aspect of it. This is a perfect example of that situation. Go Set a Watchman has many flashbacks to Jean Louise's childhood when she was called Scout and the adventures with her brother but also the heavy influence of her father's courtroom appearance as the lawyer to a black man in a time where this very action was highly unusual. TKaM focuses completely on that and it's a marvelous book, but with Go Set a Watchman, you get a glimpse of her writing process. This was the original story and TKaM was taken from that, brushed off, made better and published with great success. All in all, it's a wonderful study of the writing process and for that I truly appreciate what I read. 

By terms of the story itself, as a reader, I have mixed feelings. It's not as perfect as TKaM and I feel that Harper Lee grew with her rewrite and truly hit the nail on the head with what she published. This book could have been better... another indication of the world of editing. It's an unedited publication because Harper Lee, in her current state, is unable to edit (this brings us back to the uneasy feeling of the publication in general). We're lucky to have this glimpse of the material but I think when people frown at how it was written, they must keep that in mind: it's unedited and yes, I think that's a good excuse.

The book focuses on Jean Louise's trip home which she makes every so often, but this particular trip brings a startling revelation that things are not as they seem. Often we grow up with these clear ideas in our minds only to have them shattered as we age. We assume someone is good but when we're older, and therefore have a little more experience in the world and a clearer idea that  not everything is so black and white, we come to the realization that no, that person isn't just "good." We grow up and out of our hometowns and when we return it's different, changed.

Jean makes a few stops to an ice cream place where her original house used to stand and she takes a lot of time considering her childhood that was spent there while also studying how her world has been shaken when she realizes that her father whom she viewed as a saint, isn't so saintly. I feel every child goes through this: they return home and the house isn't as big as it was (or you can't even enter it because you don't own it anymore). You realize that uncle is inappropriate, or that parent is cruel, or that sister is much more giving than you ever thought, but often it's those negative understandings that stand out the most.

Jean Louise's father, a man she always idolized, becomes a racist in her eyes (and to ours as well). She's shaken by this as she sees all around her there are more and more people who are blatant racists. For most of her adult life, she's live in New York City where people are much more accepting (despite the assumption that New Yorkers are rude). She's been removed from her small southern town long enough that when she returns, she sees everything with new eyes. It's hard for her and hard for the reader. I've never seen the n-word mentioned so often in a book (and I suspect it'll quickly rank high on banned book lists). But one of my most particularly favorite scenes is when Jean and her uncle discuss it all and he points out that their town needs someone like her and it's so fitting, especially in today's world where prejudices and racism still, unfortunately, exist. There may be plenty of people who dislike it, but we need a central voice to speak up against the discretion. In this case, Jean. 

If I look at this book with only the mindset of the book itself, no regard for the drama of its publication or the older publication that has such raving reviews, I think it's a decent read. Groundbreaking? Maybe not. But it's still a book that strikes a cord; something the reader can relate to as well and still find it a pleasurable reading experience. I feel this book's message, in many ways, comes at an appropriate time in America when race is such a big topic.

Generally speaking, I definitely find Go Set a Watchman to be a greater study in the writing process and publication than a marvelous novel. I'm glad I have it, but I still cannot shake the odd, negative feeling in my belly from all of the negativity that surrounded its publication.

Last Week's Review: Paper Towns by John Green
Next Week's Review: Quiet by Susan Cain

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