The Short Version: At age 26, Jean Louise Finch – or “Scout” as we knew her – comes home to Maycomb, Alabama to find that the town is far different than the one she thought she’d left. As the times change, she must grapple with the fact that her father may not change as swiftly…
The Review: There are an important number of things to grapple with before you pick up this book. The least important of them, to be quite frank, is Harper Lee’s involvement with its publication: yes, signs point to some shady dealings and yes, that’s despicable. But you know what? This book would’ve come out one way or another, whether this year or ten years from now. So move on from that.
Ignore, too, the idea that this was a first draft of a novel called To Kill a Mockingbird. This is so much more than a first draft of anything, be it TKaM or even a first draft of itself. That said, it is not a final draft. That’s for damn sure – there are some simple things that you know an author who was actually involved in the production of a book would’ve wanted to change. Sometimes it’s as simple as tenses changing from one sentence to another. Sometimes it’s as awkward as two sentences that say the same thing, just differently. Very rarely, though, did I feel that this book was not ready for an audience. The things we found so engaging about Harper Lee in that one instance we’ve discovered… they’re all here: the humor, the humanity, the honesty. The book needed another pass (maybe two) but they would’ve been cosmetic: Go Set a Watchman is more fully realized than many novels that land on our shelves today.
Now, next most important: you read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, I’m assuming. You, like nearly every other person who read it at an impressionable age, remembers it – you remember it for Scout and Jem and Boo Radley but most importantly you remember it for Atticus Finch. You remember the paragon of virtue and goodness, a shining white knight of the law. And you have heard the stories about how this book upsets the understandings we have of Atticus in that book.
(ed. note: from here on “that book” refers to TKaM while anything else will refer to GSaW. Exceptions will be noted in the text.)
But let’s disregard whether or not that book, read as an adult, actually bears out that interpretation of Atticus (for my money, it does not – and I’ve felt that way since Ms. Ligouri’s 10th grade English class) – let us instead focus on, as the simultaneously-next-most important thing, your parents. Or your role models. Either or – maybe both. Pick one or a few and consider this question: when did you realize that they were not the shining examples of everything good in the world that you thought they were?
Sometimes it can be simple, nothing actually catastrophic. For me, it was my junior year of college, when my dad threw out his back just before coming to move me out of my first apartment in Boston. I had to load the car pretty much by myself and drive home to Pennsylvania – something I was not remotely prepared to do mentally, although the logistics of such a thing were in fact pretty easily accomplished. But there was something very big to me about the fact that my father was no longer Superman. He was, instead, just a man – and all the more marvelous for it.
Perhaps you had a rougher childhood or perhaps you had a childhood that lasted longer or perhaps ours terminated around the same time – but I think Go Set a Watchman is a book, at its most fundamental level, about the end of innocence. Which, at its most fundamental and basic of terms, is pretty much synonymous with the end of what is widely accepted at this point in the Western world as childhood. Scout Finch grew up with (as many of us did, in the form of Gregory Peck’s marvelous film performance) the Uber-Dad. Atticus was a bold man, strong and steadfast in his convictions… and what was more, those convictions seemed to be the right ones. It is hard to read that book in a post-Civil Rights era and not see it as obvious: the backwards, racist ways of the South. The fact that it took a good man like Atticus to stand up for what was obvious to us mostly-white, mostly-middle-(upper-middle)-class high school students… well, of course, by gum, hedid the right thing. Racism is wrong, folks, and obviously we all learned that because we all read that book.
Which, of course, makes this book all the more timely. Funny, considering it was written and set some 60-odd years ago. Because we’ve learned lately (or not so lately, depending on how you demographically or socio-consciously align) that racism is not only not gone, but it’s still downright deadly. But those who would take violent action against someone not of their skin color or creed… they, we can understand to some extent. They are extremists, they are the fullest extension of an illogical idea, and we can paint them as such. But what about the smaller hatred, the hatred that doesn’t seem like hatred? Claudia Rankine called it microaggressions, Ta-Nehisi Coates had no such easy term but explained it nonetheless – it’s the racism that disguises itself as being “not racist”. Of course, having to declare “I’m not racist” means that you probably are… and this is the interesting middleground in which we find Atticus Finch in this book. Do not believe Michiko Kakutani’s inflammatory New York Times review (or any of the other, similarly sensationalist reviews): Atticus is not as easily defined as they’d have you believe.
Oh, don’t get me wrong: he is a racist. That much is plain and true and obvious. But guess what? Your parents might be, too. Your friends might be, too. Presidential candidates and members of Congress most definitely are, even though they’d deny it – but look at the way they (your parents, your friends, your leaders) talk about President Obama. Look at the way they talk about Kanye West. Look at the way they talk about any number of professional athletes. They probably don’t use outright racist terms – but read between the lines, see the meaning behind the words. Just as calling an inarticulate African American football player a thug is racist, so too is Atticus believing that his inability to square with desegregation is only a state’s rights issue.
The most telling moment re: race comes perhaps not from Atticus but from his brother, Scout’s Uncle Jack, who tells Scout near the end of the book: “You’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially. You only see people.” I’m floored that more people aren’t talking about this statement in particular. Isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that what we should be hoping for, to see just… people? To be truly color blind? Scout has always been that way and she remains that way throughout the book, throughout the present moment as this book arrives some sixty years after it was writ.
So what, then, are we left with? What, exactly, is this book meant to be when we strip away the unfortunately-still-present race issues and the slightly sketchy issues of the book’s provenance? Why, a very good novel about a progressive child coming to terms with her not-at-all-progressive hometown and the people she left there. The characters are largely nuanced, even as they sometimes aren’t tremendously well-developed (again, the thing about needing another pass or two), and their confrontations and missed understandings feel honest. That’s the best term I can come up with for it: honest. Regardless of the dirty dealings surrounding the publication of the book, Harper Lee is right there on the page. So, too, is the same Atticus and the same Scout as we knew before.
In fact, I think I find them even more memorable having gotten the second chance to spend some time with them. Lee has a couple of marvelous flashbacks here, mostly to a time when Scout was in middle/high school, and they’re deeply entertaining (if a bit long and arguably unnecessary to the story being told).
Although, if I may interrupt myself, the story being told here is not entirely one of Scout addressing the individuals in her life and her burgeoning understanding of their backwards racial beliefs. From a larger perspective, it is the story of someone returning to their childhood home as an “adult” and seeing that home for what it really is: just another place. This is not a pleasant experience – I remember the first time I came home from school to my childhood hometown and I realized just how truly backwards and bordering-on-backwater it was. I remember talking to people who I believed were intelligent and compassionate and now understanding that while they might be that relative to the rest of the town, they weren’t actually so wonderful at all. And Lee’s depiction of this experience is perhaps the second-most marvelous thing about the book. Although New York City has changed in the last sixty years and so, too, has the experience of coming home… I was relating to Scout in a most elemental way while I read this book.
So, too, did I relate to the most-marvelous thing about the book: Scout’s confrontations with her father. It takes a lot to confront your role models, your mentors, those who you believe are above reproach. And Scout does it exactly as I would’ve – with all the errors and brash good intentions and not-quite-complete understanding. She is absolutely right in her assaults – on Atticus, on Henry, on Maycomb at large – and from pages 175 to 182 in the US hardcover, Lee absolutely nails these assaults. It is a marvelous section, wild and wooly though it may be. But at the same time, the final page left me with heavy tears in my eyes… because our parents will always be our parents. We may not agree with them, we may feel that they’re so goddamn backwards and racist and, and, and – but they are still our parents. Our wonderful, marvelous, and altogether human parents.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I want to rate it higher, to be honest, but I cannot do so as a reader of fully-edited and well-polished books. Lee’s writing is as vibrant as it was when I first read Mockingbird but there are a few moments (okay, more than a few) that stand out as very clearly first-draft-y. But the most amazing thing about this book is the remarkable look at how human our heroes can be. If you still want to believe in Atticus Finch as the white savior, don’t read this book. While you’re at it, enjoy the alternate universe in which Gregory Peck’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning performance in the film brought about the end of racism in this country.
However: if you’re somebody’s child who has realized how flawed and human their parents are, read this book. If you’ve ever had an argument with someone you respected and realized that they aren’t as respectful as you thought, read this book. If you’ve ever decided to go your own way in the face of pressures (societal, familial, cultural, etc), read this book. If you always hoped that there was more – a complicated more – to the story of Scout and Atticus, read this book.
Oh and Tonja Carter? Go fuck yourself. We all would’ve read this book after Ms. Lee passed on – you could’ve waited and saved a wonderful old woman, a national treasure, a whole lot of unnecessarily emotional strife.
(And if you have an issue with the idea of publishing somebody’s ephemera/apocrypha/unfinished/unpolished work after they’ve died, how would you like a world with Kafka, the latter works of Roberto Bolaño, Emily Dickenson, or so many others? Yeah, that’s right, zip it.)