08 August 2015

The beauty of Harper Lee and the passion of a first book

***** Be warned *****  my view of Go Set A Watchman contains SPOILERS, but I couldn’t see how to express my thoughts without touching on a few points (many already discussed in the countless reviews before the book hit the shelves).

I finished Go Set a Watchman this morning and have so many thoughts about the novel.  For one, I think the media flap over Atticus being less than a paragon was hardly more than the publisher sending out PR stories to up their sales.  At some point they took a look and saw presales were not hitting the big money mark that they had greedily anticipated, so they set out to create a mountain out of a molehill; with the help of a few reviews of outrage, they fueled the sensationalism-hungry media and social networks, the pursuing flap drove everyone out to buy it to see for themselves.  Well, perhaps there is a lesson there – never truly judge a book by its cover – or rather, we need to pay smaller heed to the fray and just read it for yourself.  You might be surprised.  I was.

I went in to buying the book feeling concern for Harper Lee.  Had she been taken advantage of?  Did she even pen the book?  Some of the circumstances of the “finding” of the novel have been called into question by various sources.  This came on the heels of Lee having to sue to get her rights for To Kill A Mockingbird back from the nephew of her former agent, that she had been duped into signing them away, even an investigation into concerns of abuse of the beloved author, who had trouble seeing and hearing and no champion to protect her.  It was a murky whirlpool of speculation that saw the book making it into print.  I know one thing without a doubt –– Go Set A Watchman was penned by Harper Lee.  The book is hers.  Unpolished in places and dealing with a period of growth for the nation, it wasn’t a pretty picture she painted, but it was an honest one from her stand point and typical for the era.  But beneath the shaky start to the book, you hear Lee’s beautiful prose ringing clear, especially when you go through the flashbacks of Jem, Dill and Atticus.

There is a tendency to see this book as a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird.  It begins with a grown up Jean-Louise Finch returning home for her annual visit to Maycomb, Mississippi.  Atticus is now aging, nearly eighty-years-old, and fighting to retain his pride though crippled with rheumatoid arthritis.  He needs Jean-Louise home, but is too proud to ask her.  Instead, his sister (which we met in To Kill A Mockingbird) is there to help him through his everyday life.  Jem is gone, lost to a sudden heart attack – the same thing that had claimed their mother when Jean-Louise was too young to recall.  You have a sense throughout the whole story that Scout hasn’t truly grieved over the loss of her hero brother, hasn’t been able to let him go.  It gives you a sense that he is still alive for her, as long as she keeps him locked in the cocoon of childhood memories.  Dill is spoken of, but never plays a role in the book outside of flashbacks.  You sense a detachment from her beloved childhood friend, which mirrors Harper Lee’s own estrangement from Truman Capote (the model for Charles Baker Harris).  And beloved Calpurnia, who served as mother to Jean-Louise, is now retired.  Their reunion is bittersweet and tears at the heart.  Other characters from To Kill A Mockingbird are scattered about, lending an instant familiarity, but their roles are changed in various ways.  Walter Cunningham, who got her in trouble with that “dumb lady teacher”, is no longer that poor little boy who pours molasses all over his plate, the son of the man who works off his entailment by bringing nuts to the Finch house early in the morn –– the only form of payment he can afford.  Instead, Walter owns the Maycomb ice cream parlor, built on the land where Scout’s old home once stood. 

In the first few chapters you hear a young writer struggling to find her voice.  The first three have a flat, detached feel to them, almost another voice, almost like Lee was trying to sound like an author rather than be one.  The harder she tried the farther she got away from her own natural magic.  Other times, she’s dead on target and straight from her heart.  As the book progresses you are treated to remembrances of Jem, Dill and Atticus.  Oddly enough, there is no mention of Boo Radley.  There is a mention of a trial, an echo of Tom Robinson’s, but this young black man, accused of rape by a white woman, lost his arm to the sawmill instead of the cotton gin, and this time Atticus saw him acquitted.  Seeds planted that would come full force and be the center of Atticus’ great journey in To Kill a Mockingbird.  All these changes see Watchman a sequel, and yet not truly a sequel.

You quickly sense there are two voices struggling within the character – Jean-Louise in the present, but also Scout who never truly went away.  She has moved to New York, tried to be worldlier.  Instead, she just put a veneer over the shy, tomboy that never quite fit in.  It’s that duality of the book, which took a few chapters for Harper Lee to master.  Through the unfolding of the story, we learn Jean-Louise is really just Scout in an adult’s skin.  It’s the battle between who she thinks she is, and who she truly is that causes most of her misery.  She still sees the town and Atticus through Scout’s eyes.  Following Scout’s recollections as she grew we learn, while horribly bright and encouraged to read about everything, she is quite backward about life in general –– terrified she is dying when her first period comes, which evolved later into nearly nine months of wretchedness after she mistakenly thinks she’s pregnant from French kissing Walter Cunningham.  Currently, she loves Henry, the boy next door, but she’s not in love with him.  In many ways the young man, best friend to Jem, has stepped into Jem’s shoes for Atticus.  What to do?  She hates the town she grew up in with a passion, yet loves it and wants to cling to the past with equal measure.  She’s horrified Atticus could have ever attended a KKK meeting, but in Jean-Louise’s simplified view of life, there are no grays.  It never occurs to her Atticus was a man who moved through Maycomb, handled legal matters, dealt with judges, lawyers, politicians and businessmen, and it was vital for him to know which ones hid behind a mask.  Scotland has a saying, you hold your friends close, and your enemies closer.  Atticus was merely following that sage adage.  However, Jean-Louise cannot see beyond the surface, only that Atticus had done something that went against everything she believed he was.

As we grow our perceptions of the world changes.  We learn, accept, reject and are changed by the various trials and tribulations.  Jean-Louise didn’t change.  She was still Scout inside, still clinging to her childish views of life, her hometown and the people she loved.  Much like Lee herself.

Go Set a Watchman is a worthy companion to the later To Kill a Mockingbird.  It’s different in many ways.  It’s a first book of an author, and showcases the shining talent of that writer finding her way, of becoming a wordsmith that would go on to turn out a masterpiece.  I think it’s an example, showing any author how to take their novel and go back and do second, third or fourth drafts to take a good story and make it something special.  Some of the writing, where Jean-Louise is examining the views on race relations of the period, Lee wanders between a Joan of Arc mentality to mounting a very preachy soapbox.  Much can and will likely be made of her simplistic views of the period, of good and evil, of the town’s resistance to the coming end to segregation.  For those too young to recall the ugly face of history, you will probably judge the book harsher than those of you who lived through the upheavals and changes and understand the complexities first hand. 

Frankly, I was scared to read the book after all the hoopla in the media.  I so loved To Kill a Mockingbird that I feared this book would destroy that love somehow.  She says Maycomb had once been told it had nothing to fear but fear itself.  I supposed I should have recalled that line.  In the end, I laughed, I cried, and I was sad when the book ended.  And extremely sad such a wonderful, wonderful writer never penned more books for the world to enjoy.  I loved this book almost as much as I do To Kill A Mockingbird.  Harper Lee has said she is Boo.  The summer we started so long ago has ended and Boo has finally come out.  When considering this book one needs to recall what Lee wrote about Atticus saying never judge someone until you’ve climbed into his shoes and walked around in them.  That is good advice about reading Go Set a Watchman.

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