Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Go Set a Watchman: Review

Yesterday I eagerly received my copy of the new novel from Harper Lee!
I stayed up all night to finish it.

In short, I thought this book was brilliant, prophetic, and the time of publishing couldn't have been more perfect! I would give it 4 out of 5 stars.
Pretty much the only reason I didn't give it 5 stars is because it didn't feel as delightfully re-readable as To Kill a Mockingbird. The last third of the book has a lot of conflict and hostility, and I think that might be difficult to tackle again and again.

Overall, an excellent book, well worth the wait, and well worth reading.

Now, on to my detailed review...

Prior to its release, I purposefully avoided reading any advanced reviews.
I wanted to experience it for myself first.

Despite that, I did hear some whisperings that fans of To Kill a Mockingbird would find it shocking, that the character of Atticus Finch was very different, and that it was generally disappointing.

I bring this up because I just want to say that I didn't find any of these things to be true.
I was very pleased with the characters, and the story.
To me, it felt like being reunited with long lost friends, and getting to know them all over again.
It was a wonderful experience.

Here are some things I especially liked about GSAW:

-Atticus felt like the same kind, wise character, just older and in declining health. Pretty much an authentic feeling old man version of Atticus Finch. I had no problems with his character.
-By the same token, Jean Louise Finch felt exactly like an adult version of the free spirited, headstrong, unorthodox self that we fell in love with in the first book.
-All of the characters were written so well!
-It is really funny! There were so many good lines that just had me grinning, and many funny and delightful moments throughout.
-It felt very genuine. You would go from laughing one moment, to being moved almost to tears in the next. It is a very thoughtful book. Sometimes even a bit heartbreaking.
-Harper Lee is very clever in describing her characters. she does it slowly, a piece at a time, over the course of the story. Each time you get a significant detail about one of the characters, it is like a little treasure being revealed. You really do get to fall in love with the characters all over again, and get to know them in their new stages of life. I loved it!

OK, I want to get into the story a little bit, so if you haven't finished it yet, you might want to skip this last section. I won't give outright spoilers, but I do hint at significant events.

First, I think that it is essential to understand the origins of this book, in order for it to not feel like a retread of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Basically, Go Set a Watchman was written first, her publisher said that they liked the moments best when Jean Louise is reflecting on her childhood, so they asked her to write a new story focusing on that element. Many of Jean Louise Finch's childhood memories are repeats from To Kill a Mockingbird. If you understand why this is, hopefully it won't seem bothersome. Think of it as a companion piece rather than a sequel.

I feel like To Kill a Mockingbird is actually the more grownup of the two stories. To me, the narration of TKAMB feels like a much older woman reflecting on the significant events of her childhood. In contrast, Go Set a Watchman is told from the perspective of Jean Louise Finch as a 26 year old woman. She is still very young, and lacking some maturity that seems present in TKAMB. This doesn't make Go Set a Watchman less worthwhile of a story, it just feels different, and provides insights from a different stage of life.

Go Set a Watchman prominently features issues relating to the civil rights movement. I feel like if it had been published in the 1950's when it was first written, it would have been viewed as extremely controversial, offensive, and probably would have been poorly received.
Jean Louise Finch, and other characters, strongly defend the rights of Negroes, and denounce the traditions of southern white society.
With it being published today, we have the benefit of looking back on these events with the clarity of time.

This perspective is similar to TKAMB which dealt with racial tension in the early 1930's, before the civil rights movement. TKAMB denounced racial prejudice and encouraged love and kindness towards all people; a message which was much needed in the 1960's when it was published, but far enough removed from the time period, that it could be well received.

The really interesting thing though is that the setting of civil rights in GSAW strongly mirrors the issues of civil liberties we are facing today. I don't think the publication could have come at a more appropriate time.
Today, we are dealing with the issues associated with integrating into our society a minority group that has only recently been legally validated. This causes a lot of social friction as we go through the necessary growing pains. GSAW is almost prophetic in its treatment of these issues. If I didn't know better, I would think it had only just been written. It is absolutely brilliant!

I think it is very interesting to see the radically different views expressed by Jean Louise Finch, and her father, Atticus. However, these differences do create some conflict between the two, which may be unsettling for some.
Jean Louise is amazingly free from any kind of prejudice. In one chapter it says that she was born color blind.
As such, she doesn't understand prejudice, nor does she understand the transitional time needed as people become comfortable with expanded civil rights.

In contrast, Atticus has been dealing with these issues for a long time, and understands the impact these changes will have on their communities. He is willing to face the hard issues and take the necessary steps towards change, in spite of the personal repercussions.
In TKAMB, his community lashed out at him. In GSAW, it is his daughter.

There is a particular paragraph in GSAW which seems to have many people upset. You'll know it when you read it.
Basically Atticus is explaining to Jean Louise why civil rights must come gradually. He explains that in many communities, the black population outnumbers the white population. He explains that if black people suddenly had equal voting rights, they would begin electing black officials to all kind of positions. The problem is that for the most part, these people had not yet achieved the level of education, or professional experience, that would qualify them for these positions.
He is trying to get her to see that having unqualified people in office, would be damaging to these communities, and would be harmful to the cause of civil rights.

Many people are claiming that in GSAW, Atticus has suddenly become a racist. I think that these people are idiots that are taking this section of dialog out of context, and have failed to understand what he is actually talking about.
He isn't opposed to black people receiving full civil rights, in fact, he is trying to help that cause along. He just thinks that it needs to come progressively. He knows that if black people suddenly have vast amounts of political power without the necessary experience, it would be disastrous for everyone. He is simply trying to facilitate the ideal conditions for giving them their full civil rights.

Atticus is still the wonderful, kind man he always was, fighting for people's rights.
Jean Louise is her father's daughter, and just as strong-willed as ever. As a budding young adult, she has developed some very strong political opinions, but she is still quite young, and her views are very polarized. She is so focused on the injustice she sees before her, that she fails to see the big picture the way Atticus does.
In one of the later chapters, her uncle says that "she had not made the journey through time that makes all things bearable."
I found her attitude to be strikingly similar to that of many politically charged young people today. The parallels to our time continue further when she has a lengthy conversation with her uncle about bigotry. Her uncle spins the argument around to point out that in this case, because she is totally unyielding in her view, and unable to see the views held my others, she has become the bigot. It reminds me an awful lot of this political cartoon I saw recently.

I'll admit, the last third of the book caught me off guard, and was not nearly as pleasant as the earlier parts. I still liked it though, because it was powerful, and incredibly relevant.

To wrap things up, I am very impressed with Go Set a Watchman. I don't think it will become the classic that To Kill a Mockingbird is, but it is a worthy companion piece.

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