"Every man's island, Jean Louise, every man's watchman, is his conscience."
Brief History of the Book.
The history of this book is well documented so I will keep this part short. Go Set a Watchman was the first book written by Harper Lee. It was at the behest of a publisher that Lee wrote, To Kill a Mockingbird. It covers in greater detail a portion of the back story that we see in Watchman.
The Manuscript was found in a safe deposit box only recently. Harper Lee is in assisted care, her mental state, following a stroke, was in question, but supporters of Lee were adamant that she was enthusiastic for the book to be published. So now we have it.
Style of the book.
Some of the initial reception for the book has been unfavourable. Some of the critics have complained that the story, "meanders" there are other complaints, but they have little to do with the way this story has been written. And that's what we have to ask here, is it a good story, is it well written?
As for style, I have been reading a book called "The Irresistible Novel" by Jeff Gerke. In it, Gerke explains that many of the reasons submissions for publication get knocked back, is down to personal taste. It is usually about style, narrative, point of view, plot devices. Here is the problem with Watchman so far as critics go. It was written in the 1950's. It has not been re-written. Style has changed since then. Anyone trying to compare this book by todays publishing standards, is in danger of missing the story completely.
Importance of the context.
This, as I have said, is a book written in the 1950's. It is about a post WW2 generation. It precedes the civil rights movement, but hints at it's early rumblings. The story has a strong sense of personal biography to it. Harper Lee's father, just like Atticus Finch, was a lawyer. Lee herself grew up in Alabama, the same US State these stories are set in.
The story has a very strong sense of reminiscence. It is a return to the idyll of childhood, a yearning for simpler carefree times. We visit that childhood often. But it clashes with a present reality that counterpoints those memories. If the book seems to meander, it is because there is so much backstory. We have to remember, this book was written first. Mockingbird was written second. We need the backstory, as well as the internal dialogue, to understand the all important context of this story.
Because the central character of Jean Louise (Scout) discovers the truth of her fathers racism.
It is a rending of the heart. Atticus is the last family Scout has left. We are given a sense that maybe, his court defense of the young negro in Mockingbird, is one of expediency rather than of altruism.
But we want to reject this possibility. Because we, as 21st century readers and movie lovers, are equally in love with Atticus Finch. The champion of the down trodden.
But Atticus Finch has feet of clay. Or does he?
This is what is left for Scout, and for us to discover. The truth about this heroic father figure, and about herself.
"I did not want my world disturbed, but I wanted to crush the man who's trying to preserve it for me"
This is a great book, it's characters are richly developed and realized. There is humour and conflict. It is well paced, even as it meanders. You simply have to trust the author to tell the story. My great disappointment was not with the book or the story. It is with the Author. Because Harper Lee a Pulitzer Prize winner, was a writer of undeniable talent, and these are the only two books she has written.
As I read this book I also had the feeling of a metaphor. This is a story for America. Post war America. That has lost the idyll and innocence of it's youth. Times are changing, and America must change with them. But will the change be enough, or soon enough? Oddly, this is a story for today. Because the story resonates with current issues and questions, that America is once again facing on the subject of race.
Was this book written 60 years too soon? Or was it published 60 years too late?
In a 2011 interview, Harper Lee was quoted as saying, "I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again."
In that case, I have to ask. Have we been listening?