Thursday, July 23, 2015

Southern History Book of the Month: Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee

Well, Harper Lee is back—though for millions of readers like me, she never left. Ever since my first reading of To Kill a Mockingbird I’ve daydreamed about what other work she might give us and could never quite resign myself to her status as a “one good novel” writer. When the news broke about Go Set a Watchman I cautiously filed it under the heading Too Good to Be True until the story was confirmed and a publication date was set.

Warning: I’ve tried to keep this post free of major spoilers, but if you want to read the novel without knowing anything in advance, then proceed at your own risk!

Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is on the train from New York, headed to Maycomb, Alabama, for her annual visit home. Not two pages into the novel, she manages to get herself folded into the wall inside the pull-down bed and has to be rescued by the porter—a scene that made me grin, but also kept resonating with me throughout the story as she returns to small-town society and tries to cope with its confinements and constraints. Some things remain the same, such as the continued pressure from her Aunt Alexandra to behave more like a “lady” and Scout’s iron-willed determination to do nothing of the sort: "Atticus raised his eyebrows in warning. He watched his daughter’s daemon rise and dominate her . . . When she looked thus, only God and Robert Browning knew what she was likely to say."

Other things, however, have shifted dramatically. This is the 1950s, the beginning of major social changes in the South, and even in rural Maycomb there are heated discussions about racial tensions, the NAACP, and the White Citizens’ Council. If Watchman was indeed an early treatment of Mockingbird, it’s easy to understand why a publisher would have been wary of it in the early 1960s and would have handled the manuscript like an unexploded bomb.

The point of view in Watchman is third person instead of first, so we are not so locked into Scout’s thoughts in this novel as in Mockingbird, but we are certainly near enough to feel her anguish as everything she had taken for granted seems to be changing—even her beloved father Atticus, who has always been the pole star for her conscience:
She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it . . . she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father . . . 
But since this is a novel by Harper Lee, Watchman has its share of humor as well. One thing that will stay with me from this first read is the sort of anecdotal wit and one-liners that I might hear at some of my own family gatherings:
The Finch doorbell was a mystical instrument; it was possible to tell the state of mind of whoever pushed it.

Reverend Moorehead was a tall sad man with a stoop and a tendency to give his sermons startling titles (Would You Speak to Jesus If You Met Him on the Street? Reverend Moorehead doubted that you could even if you wanted to, because Jesus probably spoke Aramaic.)

Alexandra declared that Aaron Stein was the greediest boy she had ever seen, that he ate fourteen ears of corn at his Menopause. 
In this story as in Mockingbird, Harper Lee has that gift for narrative that keeps you turning page after page to see what will happen next, even if what is happening takes place inside her protagonist’s mind. I look forward to re-reading Watchman after the dust has settled a bit to see how it will strike me then. But these are only my impressions from a first reading. To form your own impressions, visit your library and go place a hold for Go Set a Watchman.

Mary Anne Ellis
Southern History Department
Central Library

1 comment:

Fontaine Alison said...

Can't wait to read it! I've placed my hold at BPL.