Book Review: “Go Set a Watchman”

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I have never agonized so much over a book review, not even when I reviewed The Hunger Games.

There’s just been so much passionate controversy swirling around Harper Lee’s first draft of (and semi-sequel to) her novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It seems like you either love it or you hate it, and there’s little to no “in-between.” Not to mention the fact that an innocent discussion about it can turn into a full-blown debate on states’ rights, Reconstruction, and racism.

I don’t want to get into those issues here. If there’s anything I’ve learned about the tangled mess of emotions and constitutional intricacies that is Civil War/Reconstruction Debate and Discussion, it’s that I’m better off keeping my opinions to myself! I am, therefore, not going to address the dialogue in Go Set a Watchman about the Tenth Amendment, nor will I discuss the difficulties of Post-Reconstruction South. Let wiser, more tactful minds elaborate on such subjects. I’m going to focus on something else for this review.

I loved Go Set a Watchman. As a writer, I was so encouraged by the fact that this was Harper Lee’s first draft! I loved finding hints of the masterpiece it became. Flashbacks to Scout’s childhood–To Kill a Mockingbird‘s ultimate foundation–had me in stitches. The lovable Dill is present, but interestingly, Boo Radley doesn’t exist. In one flashback, Atticus Finch (Scout’s father) defends a prototype Tom Robinson…but actually wins his case. It bears the forgivable flaws of a first draft, but it’s nice to know that even first drafts can be pretty darn good.

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Still, I knew going in that some readers were very upset over the novel, specifically over the characterization of Atticus Finch, one of the greatest heroes of Western literature. I got the impression, from the few reviews I read, that he was a totally different person in Go Set a Watchman. I heard he was a hate-spewing bigot just short of donning a Klansman’s robe and riding through the Alabama countryside burning crosses.

And yet the longer I read the book, the more skeptical I became. I had a hard time imaging that this Atticus would reveal himself as a full-blown, callous, no-good racist. It just didn’t make sense. He seemed to be the same person I knew and loved from To Kill a Mockingbird. A total 180, with no foreshadowing at all, would be pretty shoddy writing on Harper Lee’s part–and Harper Lee is not known for shoddy writing.

Now the dust has settled in my own head; I’ve finished the book, I have drawn my conclusions. And I can assure my fellow admirers of Atticus Finch that he is not the bloodthirsty racist some have made him out to be. At all. He is a segregationist, that’s true. But this is still the man who refuses to cut in line at the grocery store in front of the black citizens of Maycomb–even when the grocer asks him if he wants to go first. This is still the Atticus Finch who defended, with everything in him, a black man falsely accused of rape. This is still the Atticus Finch who raised Jem and Scout as best as he knew how.

In short, I came away from Go Set a Watchman still admiring and loving him.

Do I disagree with his perspective on a very complex, no-easy-solution subject? Yes.

Does that invalidate all the wonderful things I still love about him in both novels? His courage, his kindness, his integrity?

No. Absolutely not.

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So what do I think of all the heartbreak and anger swirling around Go Set a Watchman? I’m not talking about the vitriolic reviews from world-famous newspapers; I’m talking about fellow fans of To Kill a Mockingbird who, like myself, look up the word “courageous” in the dictionary and mentally insert a picture of Atticus Finch. What would I say to my friends who can’t bear to read Go Set a Watchman because they don’t want to tarnish their childhood image of our hero?

Well…I’d encourage you, my friends, to read it anyway. You’ve heard the reviews; you’re already rattled. Every time you read To Kill a Mockingbird from now on, you’ll think of what you’ve heard about Go Set a Watchman. You might as well see what all the fuss is about and form your own opinion. But more importantly, I’d encourage you to evaluate your golden childhood image of Atticus.

To Kill a Mockingbird is written from the perspective of a child who idolizes her father. Go Set a Watchman is the story of a young woman who realizes that her father, while a man of great integrity, kindness, and courage, is not infallible. And therein lies our problem: We are Scout. The very thought that Atticus Finch might be imperfect makes us want to rip our hair out by the roots and cry a thousand tears. After all, who can you trust if Atticus Finch is no longer the white knight we believed him to be?

Dr. Jack Finch, Scout’s uncle (and a familiar character, if you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird), sets it straight for us, and for Scout:

Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience…

[N]ow you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings–I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.

When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the very antithesis of his conscience–your conscience–you literally could not stand it. It made you physically ill. Life became hell on earth for you.

–emphasis mine

All this book has done is “reduce [Atticus] to the status of a human being”–and while that may be painful to us, it’s probably a good thing. A well-written human character, no matter how admirable, should have flaws. We can still love them and learn from them; we just don’t see them anymore as something they never were: perfect.

And isn’t that the case with all of life? Humans will fail us. Constantly. The Lord Jesus is the only one who never changes, never fails.

Of course, Uncle Jack goes on to assure Scout:

The Klan can parade around all it wants, but when it starts bombing and beating people, don’t you know who’d be the first to try and stop it? The law is what he lives by. He’ll do his best to prevent someone from beating up somebody else, then he’ll turn around and try to stop no less than the Federal Government–just like you, child. You turned and tackled no less than your own tin god–but remember this, he’ll always do it by the letter and by the spirit of the law. That’s the way he lives.

This is the Atticus we know, isn’t it? Only this time we see him “warts and all.” And I think that’s probably how Harper Lee wants us to see him now, in the twilight of her days. We’re not children anymore. Maybe she’s telling us, like Scout, that it’s time to grow up.

And that’s why I have no problem echoing Scout’s closing lines at the end of Go Set a Watchman.

“Atticus?”

“Ma’am?”

“I think I love you very much.”

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21 thoughts on “Book Review: “Go Set a Watchman”

  1. You are a precious soul Maribeth. You have a literary voice and style that needs to be read.

    I can hear the voice of Scout in your book review and the feel of your writing style is reminiscent of Ayn Rand – “The Fountainhead” is one of my favorite films.

    I hope you endeavor to get your writing out into the public professionally and if you do…I will be the first to offer up a review.

    Be happy and be motivated.

    Mark

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  2. SO glad that you decided to write this review…I have been on the fence over reading it since the first rumors started circulating. I loved getting to hear your beautifully articulate perspective, and look forward to reading Go Set A Watchman for myself!

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    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Mary Elizabeth! I hope you do get to read it soon…it’s really quite good 🙂

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  3. Your book review was wonderful. I’ll have to get the book and read it. Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts on the book.

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    1. You should read To Kill a Mockingbird too, Mimi! It’s a fantastic book–such a fun read–and it has so many Southern-isms that you’d probably find as hilarious as I do 😀

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  4. Whoa.

    I think I’m going to echo all the other commenters here when I say that that was beautiful, well-written, and thought-provoking. I’m still a bit leery about buying/reading GSAW, but you’ve brought me closer to making that decision than anyone else so far. Maybe if I find a copy on sale or at a thrift store, I’ll buy it…and then probably have it sit on my shelf for a while until I work up the courage to read it. 🙂

    But, anyway, thank you for this post. I loved it.

    ~Eva

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    1. I do that myself sometimes, Eva: if I’m wary about a book but still want to read it, I’ll try to get myself a little paperback or something, haha. No sense in investing in a nice hardback if I’m not sure I’ll like it or not! Anyway, though…I do understand your concerns, I truly do. I’ve loved Atticus Finch since…golly…I don’t even know how old I was when I first watched To Kill a Mockingbird. So he’s very near and dear to my heart too. But like I said, I think GSAW simply gives us a clearer perspective on him. Let me know if you do get around to reading it; I’ll be interested to know what you think 🙂

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    1. Oooooh, I just checked it out! That looks like so much fun, I’m already thinking about some great heroines…thank you! 🙂

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  5. OH. MY. GOSH.

    YES YES YES.

    You’ve perfectly – PERFECTLY – summed up all of my feelings about GSAW, Scout, the First Draft/Sequel Issue, and, most of all, Atticus. I don’t even need to say anything else.

    Bravissimo.

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  6. I’ve been waffling on whether I want to read this book or not — especially since everybody in the county probably has it on hold at the library anyway — but your stunning review has just about convinced me. Whenever I finally get around to re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ll have to check how long that waiting list really is.

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    1. So sorry for not getting back to you sooner than this, Serena–but I’m so glad if this review had a positive effect! To Kill a Mockingbird is definitely worth many re-reads 🙂

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