Go Set a Watchman was crowned Book of the Year months before it was finally published in mid-July. And as regards book publicity, both positive and negative, it certainly deserves that title, and could easily be dubbed Book of the Decade with little argument from either the book’s supporters or its detractors.
Watchman has split the book community almost right down the middle. For every reader who waited anxiously for the book to become available, there seems to be a reader who had already declared no interest in reading it – at least until all the hoopla died down. Some worry that Harper Lee has been hoodwinked into allowing what was really just a rejected manuscript into being published at all. A few even go so far as to doubt that she is even aware that the book has been published. Others, once they began to hear rumors that Lee exposes the much beloved Atticus Finch’s racism in Watchman, declared that they would never read it because they did not want the Atticus character from To Kill a Mockingbird to be tainted in their minds.
I tended to be in the “wait and see” camp myself, but I decided to drive from Houston to Monroeville, Alabama (Lee’s hometown and residence) so that I could witness firsthand the festivities planned there for the book’s unveiling. What I saw in Monroeville, and the conversations I had with the locals, leads me to believe that Lee is fully aware of what is happening with Watchman. Not one time did I hear anyone express any doubt at all about that and, in fact, the town celebrated the book and its author with great pride during the two days I was there. And, because I could not resist buying a copy of Watchman in the gift shop of the old Monroeville courthouse, my reading plan as regards the book changed – and I finished it before I made it back to Houston.
Go Set a Watchman is certainly not nearly as polished as To Kill a Mockingbird. I found the book’s first hundred pages (in which Lee sets up the premise for what is to follow) to be slow reading and was beginning to grow bored with what Watchman appeared to be. But then things got interesting.
Jean Louise Finch, otherwise known as “Scout,” is the twenty-six-year-old narrator of Watchman. She is in Maycomb, Alabama, on a rare visit home from New York to what remains of her family there. The country is in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, a time of tension and turbulence in much of the South, and Jean Louise is finding it difficult to reconcile her childhood memories to what seems to be happening in Maycomb. When she finds that those to whom she is the closest, including both her father and the man she is engaged to marry, are secretly involved with the most blatant racists in the county to keep Negros “in their place,” she is ready to leave Maycomb and her family behind forever.
|Harper Lee Book Jacket Photo|
In the end, Go Set a Watchman is a realistic look into the mindset of white Southerners of the time, men and women who feared destruction of the only way of life they had ever known. Good men, as well as evil men, were caught up in the struggle for full racial equality that was happening all around them. It was largely a matter of degree, and Atticus Finch, a good man was, after all, nothing but a man of his times.
Go Set a Watchman is not a great book, but it is one that will have people talking about it for a long time. Those worried about Atticus Finch’s “image” need only remember that Mockingbird is told through the eyes of a child and Watchman through the eyes of that now-adult child. Atticus may not be the saint from Mockingbird, but he is still a good man trying to do what he believes to be the right thing.