Monday, July 20, 2015

Go Set a Watchman: A Bitter Pill

I picked up Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman on the night it was released and read a quick 150 pages before I put it down and didn't pick it back up for four days. The hype surrounding this one got to me a bit, especially the negative reactions. For a bit, I considered not finishing it at all, which in hindsight makes me feel like a bit of a jerk. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in adulthood, and while I did love it, I can also see its flaws. The book is not without that "great white hope" trope that irks the shit out of me, though it is softened through a child's experience.

Go Set a Watchman is a bitter pill. It examines race relations in the 50s, after the  Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in ways that are disheartening...maddening even. But are they unrealistic? Sadly, no. They are far too realistic.

Jean Louise (can't we just call her Scout?) is making her yearly visit home when she discovers that there's quite a bit amiss in Maycomb. Race relations are bubbling beneath the town's surface and threatening to spew as they are all over the South. She sees the greatest evidence of this in those closest to her, and her reaction is near-violent anger, diatribes, and no shortage of vomiting.

This book is peppered with shades of To Kill a Mockingbird. Some passages are the same, actually, while other bits show off the best of Harper Lee's abilities...her humor and insight...in this new context. Other parts of the writing are didactic and Jean Louise's inner monologues border on self-aggrandizing.

Alas, while bits of this book were downright boring (most of the first half), the end was complex, thought-provoking, but also terribly rushed and far too neat.

Of all the issues Go Set a Watchman attempts to deal with...this is the one that haunts me.

What do we do with our racist relatives? The people who have invested their time in us, who have raised us? Who have been our best friends but who are changed as they age and as the world evolves. The ones who don't share a deep-seeded calling to social justice. Do we run from them? Disown them? Accept that they're flawed in ways that are deplorable but carry on with family dinners? These are extremely personal questions. Personal struggles. Every adult I know has had to deal with this question in some form or fashion whether they choose to give it any serious thought or not. While I'm taken aback by my family's willingness to shout their devotion to the Confederate battle flag, I'm sure they're fairly taken aback that I will argue with them about it from time to time. That I feel differently. We are two sides of a coin...raised in the same place, taught the same things, but we are so, so different.

And in dealing with this question, that's where I felt the book was far too rushed. It could've been a much more affecting, thoughtful, critical examination if it wasn't tied up so neatly and quickly.

Am I sorry I read it? Absolutely not.

For some first-rate examinations of the book that represent a spectrum of opinions, check out these posts:



Publication Date: July 2015
Publisher: Harper
ISBN: 0062409859 
Format: Hardcover
Source: Bought it myself!







21 comments:

  1. If I read this, I'll wait for the buzz to die down. I did listen to the Book Riot podcast, though, and think it might make a good book club book.

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  2. Wonderful thoughts (I posted mine on Thursday). I wasn't bored in the first half, but I definitely think the second half felt rushed.

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  3. I agree with the second half feeling rushed. I don't want to say too much since I still think I'll write up something soonish, but I appreciate your thoughts on the novel and am glad we both read it.

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  4. Such a fair and honest review. I didn't have a problem reading it. I guess I'm old enough to be able to read Go Set a Watchman without it hurting my love of To Kill a Mockingbird. I am also old enough to understand that someone you love and admire greatly as a child can disappoint greatly as an adult. I think what taunts you taunts me and many of your Texas and Southern readers. I guess that is why I wasn't shocked that Atticus is a racist. I love more than one racist. All I can do is correct them when they do it in front of me. The good ones have stopped it. The others aren't worth my time. I can't help but wonder though why we are so different. As for the writing, I just assume it's the unedited rough draft of a young first time writer. I'm not sure we'll ever know if that is the real truth.

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  5. I haven't read this yet and I'm not sure I'm going to, only because I don't have particularly strong feelings about TKAM and have been able to pick up plenty about GSAW from reading about it to get a sense of it. But you can count me among those who wasn't surprised that someone like Atticus could have a racist side. I've had multiple relatives over the years talk about equality as a good thing, but then they reach a breaking point where there's too much equality, or they've bought into some of the worst stereotypes about black people, gay people, immigrants, etc. I don't always know how to respond. It depends a lot on who it is and what the situation is. Sometimes there's no value in having a conversation, and sometimes the conversations we have have to be called to a halt when it's clear we're neither of us budging that day. I do try to hold on to the best of the good things they've taught me and remember that prejudice was taught to them, and I've been lucky enough to avoid (at least some of) the worst of that or get some different teaching along the way.

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  6. I don't think I'm going to be reading GSAW. I liked TKAM well enough, but I don't have the intense connection with it so many people seem to. Couple that with the fact that its causing a big fat uproar and there's a big part of me that thinks Harper Lee isn't entirely lucid these days, I'm going to have to pass. You bring up a great point about the relatives though. What exactly are you supposed to do when someone says something awful (probably without realizing it) at Thanksgiving? Do you start a big fight at the dinner table? Does letting it go perpetuate racism? Why is life so complicated, Andi?

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  7. I read it and wrote a bit on it, but basically, I thought it while it was an important literary moment, it was poorly written.

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  8. I've decided to not read Go Set A Watchman for now. I love To Kill a Mockingbird. I've read the book several times in my life, as a child and adult.
    We don't get to pick our family like we do our friends. We are born into a family.
    But people are people, complicated and sometimes ugly.
    I have family members who are liberal and some conservative. I have some who are Protestant and some who are Catholic. I have family members who love animals and some who hate them. I have family members who have mental health problems. I have some family members who won't work to earn a living but live off of women. I have family members who have addictions. I have family members who are just plain mean and some who would give you their last dollar.
    Telling these family members what they are doing wrong does not work, but living out what I believe is loving and gracious has worked, because they see I am not full of crap but live what I believe.
    The real problem is a heart problem, the inner person/the character. How the person lives out their life through words and actions is a demonstration of what is inside.

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  9. I've only recently read To Kill a Mockingbird and I honestly think that I should wait a while before I attempt to read Go Set a Watchman. I'll wait until the buzz has died down. I've also adjusted my expectations regarding this book from all the posts, and tweets I've seen in the last week or so.

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  10. I have so many thoughts on this book. (And on the rest of what you mentioned here, and what we talked about on Twitter just this morning!) I'm almost reluctant to chat about Watchman for some reason. I think it's a powder keg discussion at this moment in literary history and I'm still digesting what I've read. I was disappointed and elated. It made me sad and mad. I'm glad to have read it but I almost wish it hadn't been published. Ahhh, feelings!

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  11. After I pretty much decided to skip it, my library holds came in from two separate libraries so I took that as a sign that I should read it after all. I downloaded it to my Kindle and will get to it eventually.

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  12. This book stirred up so many negative feelings and even pain for me. I'm still processing. On Friday I'm getting together with a few friends to discuss the book. I really need to think through my responses to this book, because I know my students will be asking me what I think when I see them in August.

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  13. I'm planning to wait a while, but curiosity may get the better of me.

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  14. Cassie Said: Thanks for the shout out, beautiful lady. I enjoyed reading your review because I had a lot of the same thoughts. I had to push through the first half, but I thought the back half of the book was so much intensity (and written basically for girls my age since I'm just a year older than Scout in this book) and gets at that very real dawning that your parents aren't exactly who you thought they were. My parents raised me to be really openminded and "do what you love" was an anthem in my home, however, they have very different views from those that they gave me. And I appreciate that about my own family, and about the outcome that Scout gets to in this book. I appreciated it. I believe too that they have to be read in published order. How do you feel about that? I felt without Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman didn't mean as much.

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  15. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I've been on the fence about reading GSAW, but I think I might just wait until the hype dies down.

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  16. Trying to write a review and it is turning into a personal testament of how close this hits home. I'm tired, frankly, of feeling so alienated by the people in life. Attempting to beat the personal out of this review and it will be difficult.

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  17. If GSAW disappointed me in any aspect (which mostly it didn't, because my expectations were sensibly low), it's that it failed to say much of coherence about the exact issue you highlight: the cognitive dissonance of dealing with people who are good and righteous in some areas and who hold views that you find toxic and bigoted in other areas. It didn't work on that level partly because it's not a particularly deft book, and also because Scout herself hasn't shaken free of those prejudices, however much she thinks she has. It's a case where the reader has 60 years on Scout and thus can see in very, very sharp relief Scout's own racial limitations.

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  18. I finished it yesterday, and I agree with your review, but I would add that this new Atticus is not realistic, even if we don't take To kill a mockingbird into account, because in this case it's clear that it was him who tought Scout the values she has now, and I it doesn't seem plausible that a man who believes that there are no races can then fight for segregation. That Atticus would fight for the black people to have a good education for their politicians to be valuable and useful to the community, and not for preventing them to vote, etc, because they are illiterate.
    Perhaps it's that I'm angry with the book right now, but I do think this Atticus is not very credible throughout the story.

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  19. YES, I completely agree. It just ended with Scout basically feeling - hey, he's my dad and I love him, even if we disagree. WHAT? All that shouting and crying and vomiting and that is the "resolution"? It was not enough.

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  20. The questions that this book left you asking are important ones to everyone but especially to people who feel a call to act on their desire for increased social justice in the world. I haven't read this yet but I know I will get around to it. I hope that the book gets me just as fired up.

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