I’ve stayed away from reading other reviews before I wrote this one. I’ve heard the rumors about the betrayal some feel in the portrayal of one of the twentieth century’s most beloved heroes and father. Heroes fall a long distance off those pedestals created by an adoring public. And so Atticus Finch has taken one of the biggest falls into the abyss of humanness.
Even though I haven’t read the other reviews yet, I did check on Amazon to see how the book is doing. It beat records for pre-orders and is still No. 1 in some categories. It has received 1,641 reviews with an average 3.8 ranking (out of five).
I believe book reviews should be about the quality of the writing and story telling ability. If I disagree with a character’s viewpoint, then the author has done the job of making at least one reader feel something about the writing. Go Set a Watchman certainly achieves all those things. It’s a compelling story, filled with the quality writing expected from Harper Lee based on the literary genius of To Kill a Mockingbird. I found it fascinating to learn that Ms. Lee wrote this book first in the mid-fifties. Publishers rejected it, and one asked for her to change the character of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch to a child rather than the grown woman who comes home to Maycomb, Alabama, after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954.
Once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down. That doesn’t happen to me very often these days. I couldn’t wait to meet the grown up Scout to learn how she grew out of her tomboy phase. Her adult character rang true to the beloved Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a marvel how Ms. Lee took what she originally created in the adult Scout and transformed her into the child. She’s adept at characterization. I loved Alexandra “Aunty” and Uncle John. Both characters provided foils and moral low and high points in the story. Atticus is mostly absent from the main part of the novel, and that added to the tension as some shocking details come to light and nearly send Scout back to New York City forever. I read as fast as I could so I could get to the part where Atticus declares true or false the accusations building in Scout’s mind against him.
Jean Louise is caught in the shades of gray areas of adulthood, with one foot back in the world of Scout and her brother Jem, and the other area where she faces the harsh realities of a culture not ready for change. She’s polarized, and most of the time, she feels as if she belongs no where, or even worse, that she doesn’t even exist at all. Her Uncle John plays the role of mediator between those worlds in this novel. He tells her at a crucial moment in her awakening, “You’ve walked into the middle of a revolution.”
There are some uneven points in the novel, but it could be a literary technique Ms. Lee chose. Two or three times there’s a subtle shift in point of view, but for the most part, the reader knows the story only from Scout’s point of view.
Atticus may have fallen off his white horse, but he gives his reasons, which are both shocking and parental. His views on race relations, and the whole African American race as a whole, jar with his other persona from years earlier. However, he wisely knows that for Scout to shift into full maturity, she must not view him as infallible.
Harper Lee has written a book of a time and era that existed in this country. Attitudes such as the ones portrayed in the novel still exist in pockets or have shifted to other groups. Arguments about states’ rights versus the federal government give this novel an eerily relevant and insightful view of the lengths folks might go to to protect the status quo. You could insert “gay” or “illegal immigrant” instead of the “Negro” of this novel to understand how timely her novel really is. She hasn’t written a racist book as some suggest, but she’s written a book about the history of an era in which some of the characters are racist. It’s who she’s portrayed as the racist that has upset folks.
She knocked down an icon in Atticus Finch, but perhaps it was time. An icon in the most original sense of the word means something that is idealized and then is destroyed before it is worshiped to the exclusion of all else. The icons of the past were literally smashed on the steps of cathedrals and annihilated so as not to become too powerful.
He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being. -John Finch to Jean Louise in Go Set A Watchman
While I’m not sure Atticus Finch needs to be destroyed completely, in the real world, he most likely would have held some of the beliefs espoused in Go Set a Watchman, with his privileged status of a southern gentleman who was born shortly after the Civil War.
Finally, just a personal aside. As she flashed back to her childhood,I kept waiting for a reference to Boo Radley. Nothing. So perhaps the character only came to her upon revision for the Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird.
I recommend reading this book for its outstanding literary content and its historical perspective. We need to remember our history because we sure are doing a terrific/horrific job of repeating it.