Thursday, August 27, 2015

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

It is time to address the elephant in the room, Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.  I avoided reading reviews of this book until I was very near the end of reading the book for myself.  My delay in reading reviews was because I felt certain that Watchman was not a newly discovered (or long-lost) sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, but was the rejected first novel manuscript mentioned in several biographies (all of them unauthorized) on Ms. Harper Lee.  I also delayed my reading of reviews because I wanted to come to the novel objectively and openly…and because I was already hearing rumors that Watchman was flat out ruining Mockingbird forever in the eyes and hearts of southerners, northerners and foreigners alike.  God help us when we discover that our beloved fictional characters are more human (what?!?) than we thought (or desired) them to be.  Gracious.

So, having read Watchman with an objective and open mind, here is what I personally think about the book: 1) I am glad that it was not published before Mockingbird and I would certainly not recommend it over Mockingbird to anyone wanting an opinion of which novel to read first.  And although I’m not even sure that it should have been published in the first place because it reads sometimes in a disjointed, unpolished manner as if it were an unedited manuscript, I’m glad that it was published because it is an excellent historical companion piece (in so many ways) to Mockingbird.  2)  It is dated. And not in a way that a modern author who researched the 1950s in order to write a novel that sounded like it was written in the 1950s sort of way.  If Watchman is the manuscript I truly think it is, it was ACTUALLY written IN the 1950s, so some of the slang and references do not translate terribly well into modern vernacular.  3)  Watchman contains some passages of such exquisite Southern Gothic beauty and humor, I thought I was going to die from them.  

For example:  “On clear days Cousin Joshua read Greek, and he left a thin volume of verse printed privately by a firm in Tuscaloosa. The poetry was so ahead of its time no one has deciphered it yet, but Jean Louise’s aunt keeps it displayed casually and prominently on a table in the living-room.” 

And, “The county and the town were named for a Colonel Mason Maycomb, a man whose misplaced self-confidence and overweening willfulness brought confusion and confoundment to all who rode with him in the Creek Indian Wars. The territory in which he operated was vaguely hilly in the north and flat in the south, on the fringes of the coastal plain. Colonel Maycomb, convinced that Indians hated to fight on flat land, scoured the northern reaches of the territory looking for them. When his general discovered that Maycomb was meandering in the hills while the Creeks were lurking in every pine thicket in the south, he dispatched a friendly Indian runner to Maycomb with the message, Move south, damn you. Maycomb was convinced this was a Creek plot to trap him (was there not a blue-eyed, red-headed devil leading them?), he made the friendly Indian runner his prisoner, and he moved farther north until his forces became hopelessly lost in the forest primeval, where they sat out the wars in considerable bewilderment.”  (As Eric pointed out to me, that second passage sounds down right Faulknerian!  Hey, let’s start a rumor that Faulkner actually wrote Watchman!).

I do sincerely hope that no one took advantage of Ms. Harper Lee in her advancing years in order to make money off of her “newly discovered manuscript,” as so many folks are saying.  Perhaps it is as Biographer Charles Shields hypothesizes, that because Alice Lee felt that their father was represented in such poor light in Watchman, it was she who kept the original manuscript under lock and key all these years.  And that two and a half months after Alice Lee’s passing this book was “found” and immediately put under contract.  Plausible? Yes.  Truthful?  Who will ever know… 

I think Jaimie Pickle Jones of the Rainbow City Pickle-Jones says it best in her Goodreads review, “I loved the way Jean Louise looked at her small town. She loves it because it's her home, but she makes sure not to keep it too precious, she tells its characters, its faults.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.  I give that a hearty AMEN.

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