cricketmuse

a writer's journey as a reader

Reading Challenge #44: Go Set a Watchman


‘Go Set a Watchman’ will land at No. 1 on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list. (Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images)

BEWARE: UNINTENDED SPOILERS AHEAD

No matter your opinion about Harper Lee’s “latest” novel, here are some stats from USA Today that can’t be ignored:

  • Publisher HarperCollins says more than 1.1 million copies of Watchman have sold so far in print, e-book and audio formats (the audio is read by Reese Witherspoon), making it the fastest-selling book in company history.
  • Barnes & Noble says Watchman‘s first-day sales surpassed that of any other adult trade fiction title, including Dan Brown’s 2009 novel The Lost Symbol, the previous record holder. B&N said it expects Watchman to be its best-selling book of 2015. (B&N declined to provide sales figures.)
  • At Amazon, Watchman has been the No. 1 best-seller in print since its release, and is also No. 1 on the Kindle Best Sellers list. (Amazon updates its lists hourly.)

I have been following most of the media blitz on Lee’s novel, ever since the hint that a second novel was “found.” I say most, simply because saturation was reached around June. I am a devoted To Kill a Mockingbird fan, who not only reads the novel once a year (or tries to), but teaches it most enthusiastically to ninth graders (when assigned that grade), so mention of another Lee novel definitely set my little heart pitter-pat.

And then the barrage of concerns floated about in the Net:

  • it was found after Lee’s sister Alice passed away
  • Lee resides in an assisted living home, having suffered a stroke, and suffering from hearing loss and macular degeneration gives speculative thought how coherent she really is
  • lawyers, editors, publishers are not in absolute agreement in exactly how the manuscript was found
  • many longtime residents, friends, and others who know Harper Lee were concerned enough about her being possibly coerced into consent that an elder abuse complaint was filed
  • not too many of my fellow Book Boosters have blogged reviews about the book

A lot of deep hmmm-ing took place over the subsequent months as I anticipated the novel’s well-awaited debut. I kept tabs on most of the articles and opinions that surfaced, although, as stated, saturation did preclude any deep dwelling, especially as speculative opinion was fast becoming redundant.

I deliberated continually of whether or not I would read the novel. My inner dilemmas ping-ponged accordingly:

  • why risk ruining the high opinion of TKAM?
  • why not risk it?–there will forever be the wanting to know.
  • read it and determine an opinion before others ruin the reading experience.
  • why should I let others sway since they usually don’t?

And so it went, until finally in June I called up the local library and asked to be put on the waiting list. I figured it would be December before it would be my turn. I received the book two days after it became available. Okay, just because it’s on hold doesn’t mean I have to read it. As I checked it out I noticed no other date stamps.

“I’m the first one to read it!”

“We ordered a stack of them. You’re the first to read this one.” Okay, Earth to special patron status. But at least it was in my hand. I asked my library kindreds if they had read the book.

“I had it in hand, and decided not to.” A non-com shrug from the other librarian. Great. I’m really in quandary now. Then again, who knows when I will read it once school starts. Summer is my reading season. Once school starts it’s back to reading essays.

Watchman stayed on my shelf for three days before I actually started it. A conversation with a fellow TKAMer teacher prompted me to actually open the book.

“There is a chapter that will take your breath away.”

“Which chapter?”

“You’ll know it when you see it.”

I started the book at 4:30 pm and finished it by 9:30 am. I did stop to sleep. Barely. And yes, the chapter mentioned did take my breath away. I knew it when I saw it.

So, as I read Watchman I jotted down notes:

  • For those who believed Harper Lee’s gift to the literary world, actually world in general, was a one-shot wonder–then this novel proves them wrong. Lee is an amazing craftsman, especially if this was a draft and not a final manuscript.
  • this novel stands on its own merit
  • the shadows of TKAM flit about the periphery, yet are only fireflies of reminiscence and are not needed to provide the illumination to the contents of Maycomb
  • Lee’s writerly brilliance shines in mundane moments, such as the Coffee episode, where she compares the bits of conversational banter to the scales of a piano as she played hostess with refreshments
  • Lee totally had me scrambling on more than one vocabulary word and allusion reference: Asquithian? Arriviste? Childe Rostand?
  • Highlight passages include:
    • “Although it was four hours away, she could hear her aunt’s sniff of disapproval.” (in reference to wearing slacks instead of a dress when arriving to Maycomb)
    • Uncle Jack’s explanation of the Civil War as related to the bubbling pot of politics and social norms being upsided in the South during the fifties/sixties

And this brings me to the SPOILER ALERT

  • There are issues that are still relevant fifty years later which aren’t being fully understood.

Here goes:

Being a Northern girl by way of the Pacific Northwest I am clueless about the South, and from time to time have to get edumacated by the MEPA, who was raised in the South during the fifties and sixties. He doesn’t read TKAM or The Help–he lived it.

One of the biggest concerns about Watchman: Atticus is portrayed as a racist.

This is where I heartily disagree. At one point, Jean Louise, follows her father and almost-fiance into a Council meeting. It’s just short of a Ku Klux Klan gathering. Jean Louise is physically sick that the two men who are most significant in her current life are lapping up racial rantings. Her world is shaken and she just about wipes her feet of Maycomb to leave her childhood home forever. Uncle Jack sets her straight with his quick synopsis of why the South went to war.

The book is powerful in its advocacy of accepting, not just tolerating, people for being people. Jean Louise is so disillusioned by what she sees as her father being a hypocrite she can’t abide looking at him in the face. She realizes she was raised to be color blind, she sees someone, not their race. Powerful stuff.

When she finally has her showdown with her father, she verbally berates him for undoing all that she has learned from him. She upbraids Henry, her hopeful fiance, as well. What she learns, and what Lee provides us, is a peek behind the curtain when it comes to Southern way of thinking. Atticus states he attended a KKK meeting because he wanted to know who was behind the sheets. Henry says he can do more good if he garners the trust of the people who know him. Maycomb is Maycomb. Basically what is being said is the time-honored strategy of getting inside the system to change the system. While it appears as racism to Jean Louise, it’s really savvy coping strategy. 

The MEPA reiterated Henry’s explanation to Jean Louise: to live in a Southern town means getting along with the town, even if comes across as being in alignment with their opinions.

When reading all the negative reactions to the book, I think readers are missing that point. Atticus is not a racist; he is a realist. He sees what the South is and where it needs to go and how it will get there. He still believes in justice, he still believes in equality–he believes in waiting. He is still Atticus. He hasn’t changed. Jean Louise has, and she acknowledges that painful discovery.

Overall, I am impressed with Watchman. It’s a stand alone novel, and I can’t help wonder what would have happened if it had been released earlier, about fifty years earlier. I have thoughts on that, and might expand on what just might be a conspiracy theory.

If you are on the fence about reading Watchman, I suggest you jump down and get a copy and read it for yourself. If you have read it, I hope you will dialogue with me.

Do you believe Atticus comes across as a racist, or is he actually a realist?

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14 thoughts on “Reading Challenge #44: Go Set a Watchman

  1. Thanks for that summary of the various reports on the book – I had given up following the discussions. I read the freely available first chapter and wasn’t exactly blown away by it so decided it was a curiosity library read, not a buy. I see I have now dropped from 170 on the list to 104 🙂 I will follow this thread with great interest as I had been feeling cynical about the book before reading other people’s concerns that you have listed. The book has a good story line so I hope that I enjoy it when I do get around to reading it. Thanks for an interesting lead-up.

  2. Firstly, this is a great post – much more articulate than mine!

    I find myself in complete agreement regarding the portrayal of Atticus. I’d heard enough about him in the novel before I started reading, to have a general idea of his actions. But after reading, I felt initial reports of his racism were greatly exaggerated.
    I didn’t really see him as a racist. He’s definitely a different man, but 20 years will change a person. You’re definitely right – he is a realist. And certainly in order to effectively counteract racism, you need to be able to understand the racists themselves. If you don’t know your perceived enemy, how can you beat them?

    Regarding the lack of posts regarding the book, I can think of maybe two reasons why people aren’t writing about it.
    1 – The level of saturation you mentioned – who wants to read another opinion on it.
    2- It’s a hard book to write about because of the hype and the conjecture around it’s discover and subsequent publishing.

    I nearly didn’t write about it because of the above reasons, but then I went ahead and did anyway because another opinion isn’t going to break the internet.

    • Thanks for the encouraging words. People were making him out as if he shopping for bedsheets to wear at the next KKK gathering–goes to show the importance of forming an opinion aside from the crowd.

      • Definitely. I listened to an interview with a journalist here in Australia who is the host of a monthly book club tv show, and her opinion of Atticus was quite scathing. As someone whose opinion I trust, I found myself taking her thoughts on board. After reading though I find myself almost in direct opposition to her.
        But I’ve seen many people offer a similar reading of Atticus as to that of this particular journalist, and it’s making me wonder whether I missed something.
        I definitely need to reread it soon, although I doubt that my opinion will change that dramatically, if at all.

      • The scene where Scout is in Atticus’ office and his reaction to her verbally berating him is the key. His reaction to her accusations is that he wouldn’t respond in anger because the hurled words couldn’t affect him–they weren’t true. It was only Scout’s perception, and she hadn’t looked beyond the surface. Uncle Jack’s scene with her after that puts it all in perspective. It’s a brilliant piece of dynamic between child and parent, the essence of when the child finally sees the parent as a person and not a paragon.

  3. I need to read TKAM before this one, I wasn’t even aware of this, I need to get out more!

  4. ok, ill dig up a copy upon ur recommendation

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