Go Set a Watchman, Tour 2015 – Tour Kickoff

Watchman Tour ShirtHello, All,

Welcome to the first stop on the 2015 Go Set a Watchman blog tour. This novel is the follow-up to Harper Lee’s very highly regarded To Kill a Mockingbird. But it’s actually not that simple. Go Set a Watchman was Lee’s first draft, written in the mid-1950s. It wasn’t accepted ‘as is,’ and Lee was encouraged to develop the flashback scenes (more about them shortly) into another novel. That novel became To Kill a Mockingbird, and the rest, as they say, is history. Go Set a Watchman went missing for decades, not to be found until recently. So if you’ve never read either Harper Lee novel, you’re actually reading the novels in order if you start with Go Set a Watchman. Fortunately, it also works if you read To Kill a Mockingbird first, as the two stories are integrally related.

Go Set a Watchman begins with twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch’s return to her home town of Maycomb, Alabama. She’s been away for ten years; first to college, and then to New York City. At first, she’s delighted to be back. She’s missed her father Atticus and even her sometimes-annoying Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’ sister.

But – and this is one of the important themes in this novel – Jean Louise soon has to face what a lot of young adults face: disillusionment. She’s held her father up as a paragon of all things good ever since she was a child. He raised her and her brother Jem as a single parent, and she’s always looked to him for advice and good sense. She’s always been afraid to disappoint him, and been proud of his strong set of values. To him, everyone is equal before the law, and that conviction has stayed with his daughter.

One afternoon, she finds that Atticus is not the ‘tin god’ she made him out to be. Instead, he is a human being, flawed as all of us are. He is a successful White man living in the South; and he has the ideas and perceptions that a lot of White men in his situation have. That includes his beliefs about Blacks. He doesn’t believe in violence against Blacks; certainly he doesn’t hate them. But he is convinced they’re ‘not ready for equality.’ This discovery devastates Jean Louise, who has always remembered his watchwords:

 

‘Equal rights for all. Special privileges for none.’

 

She can’t reconcile his commitment to equality before the law with what she now sees of Atticus, and it tears her apart. This is especially difficult because of her own strong position against racism – a position she credits to her father.

Jean Louise is disillusioned in other ways, too. Maycomb was, and still is, a place of simple courtesies that she can’t find in New York. For instance, at one point, she goes to the grocery store, having forgotten to bring money. In Maycomb, it’s a simple matter of arranging with the grocer to have her father pay later that day. That sort of courtesy wouldn’t be extended in the more impersonal New York that she’s come to know.

That said though, she now sees Maycomb with different eyes. It’s also a place where racism is woven into everyday living. There is casual acceptance of stereotyped views of Blacks. And there is deep resentment of the NAACP and the Supreme Court, both of which are seen locally as meddlers in affairs not their own. Jean Louise, who is and always has been race-blind, can’t think that way, and can’t relate to people who do. Nor can she accept the sexism she sees. So she no longer feels a part of Maycomb. At the same time, she doesn’t feel she really belongs anywhere else.

And then there’s the rude lessons she learns about social class. As a child, Jean Louise never really thought about social class any more than she did about race. But as her friend Henry Clinton shows her, social class matters. He’s always been her best friend, and is now her father’s junior law partner. He also wants very much to marry her. But she can’t tolerate his willingness to go along with the local attitudes towards race instead of standing up to them. Here’s what he says about it:

 

‘I mean there are some things I simply can’t do that you can.’
‘And why am I such a privileged character?’
‘You’re a Finch.’

 

Henry goes on to explain that her family is given a pass because of their status. He, on the other hand, came from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, and continually has to prove himself.

As Jean Louise learns, the world is not as simple as it seemed to her child’s eyes. And as she learns just how complicated it all is, we see the complexity of life in a Southern town when all of the rules everyone has ever known are turned upside down. As her uncle puts it:

 

‘The South’s in its last agonizing birth pain. It’s bringing forth something new and I’m not sure I like it, but I won’t be here to see it. You will.’

 

Lee shows that serious challenges can’t be met with easy solutions.

By way of contrast to the sometimes incomprehensible world Jean Louise now sees around her, we also see life in Maycomb through her memories. Lee uses flashbacks to show how simple it all seemed to a young girl. Right was right, wrong was wrong, and trusted people like Atticus and the family cook Calpurnia were always there to show the way. Those flashbacks will be familiar to those who’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, as they later became the basis for it. But for those who haven’t, they provide a look at the way Jean Louise used to experience life. And there are times when those memories hurt quite a lot, since they’re so different to what she’s seeing now.

Is Go Set a Watchman a crime novel? Not in the sense that, say, an Agatha Christie novel is. There is a crime in it, but it’s not the main plot thread. It strikes close to home, though, as Calpurnia’s grandson Frank is arrested for running over and killing a White resident, old Mr. Healy. No-one thinks that it was premeditated or even deliberate. But Frank will need a good lawyer, and part of the plot concerns Atticus’ and Henry’s decision to take the case.

Go Set a Watchman is the story of an idealistic young woman’s discovery that life is much more complicated than she remembers it, and that people are not unidimensional. Jean Louise will have to rearrange her thinking and find a place for herself in ways she hadn’t imagined. The novel features a small Southern town that’s going to have to face the fact that the rules are changing, and the different reactions to that of the people who live there.

I hope you’ll follow the rest of the tour and visit the other stops. Tomorrow’s is the terrific Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, the blog home of Bill Selnes, whose great idea this tour was. I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say about Go Set a Watchman.

 

Here are the rest of the tour stops:

Friday 25 July  Clothes in Books

Thursday, 30 July – Coffee Rings Everywhere

Friday, 31 July – Crime Fiction Writer Sue Coletta

42 Comments

Filed under Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

42 responses to “Go Set a Watchman, Tour 2015 – Tour Kickoff

  1. A very interesting overview of the novel. I haven’t read it yet, but I enjoyed your evaluation!

  2. Col

    Interesting analysis, but I think I’ll be passing on this one, Margot.

  3. Loved your summary, Margot, as only you could write it. I’ll withhold comment until the 31st. 🙂

  4. Patti Abbott

    I have heard such horrible things about it–putting into question whether her editor basically wrote TKAM. And I heard the first 125 pages are a real bore. Not sure I have it in me to risk ruining a book I hold dear.

    • I understand exactly what you mean, Patti. I can say without spoiling this book, that it does make you think about …Mockingbird. I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone else thinks.

  5. The experiences that Jean Louise has returning to the South in this book sound so familiar, Margot. I was 23 when I left for California and my younger brother was 16. He was in a high school that was mostly black students; he was the minority. I had gone to the same high school when it was all white students and was there when it was integrated… with about four black students. We had entirely different experiences in high school and the tensions in the neighborhood when he was a teenager had lasting effects on my family. I had been raised by my parents to support integration (from when I was in elementary school) and it was a shock to come back and see that some of their values had changed. Not radically, but sufficient to be disturbing. Enough said about that. Based on your review, I will probably have to try this one, eventually. I did have a difficult experience reading To Kill a Mockingbird… too close to home. And not just related to racial relations. The treatment of females was not much better.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Tracy. Those years were years of a great deal of change, sometimes at such a fast pace and with so much tension that people simply couldn’t manage it. I’m sure there must have been a lot of difficulty because of it. It’s interesting that you mention the treatment of girls and women, too. There’s definitely some of that in …Watchman. There are certain roles that females are expected to play, and Maycomb is not ready for feminism. I will say, though, that there’s not a focus on outright horrible abuse of women in the book. It’s more an all-pervasive atmosphere of limited expectations for women, and identification through ‘catching a man,’ if that makes sense.

  6. What a great start to the blog tour Margot – and Tracy’s comments above are exactly the kind of discussion points I think we’d be hoping for.

  7. I’m very slowly listening to the audiobook version, so have only skimmed your analysis for now. Will come back and read properly once I’m finished. So far, I’m not finding it as compelling as I hoped, but I’m not sure whether that’s to do with the book or the narration – I’m sure Reece Witherspoon’s accent is authentic but I’m finding it quite hard to catch every word. I may revert to paper at some point…

    • Oh, I’ll be really interested in your view of the book when you’ve finished it, FictionFan, whether it’s audio or print. Interesting choice of Reece Witherspoon as the narrator, too. Not sure I’d have chosen her, but then, what do I know?

  8. philipcoggan

    Thanks Margot. I haven’t read this, though it’s in the window of every bookstore. I guess I’ll have to. You make Watchman sound rather more mature and nuanced than Mockingbird – but also very much of its time. Mockingbird will be a classic, but I fear Watchman is already dated. Anyway, I must read it.

    • Oh, that’s a really interesting observation, Philip! I wonder whether …Watchman will feel dated to readers. In some ways it is a little more nuanced, at least in my opinion. I saw some interesting layers in it. But yes, it is definitely a product of its time, and may feel ‘stuck’ there. I’ll have to think about, for which thanks. I like ‘food for thought.’

  9. kathy d.

    Reese Witherspoon is from the South, which may be which she narrates the book.
    I just can’t read Watchman. The fact that Atticus Finch, who was seen as an anti-racist hero, for decades, with children named about him, is at heart a terrible racist is too big a blow. I read that he even belongs to the White Citizens’ Council. That was very strongly tied to the Ku Klux Klan in reality in the South.
    But there is also much suspicion about who really wrote the book and under what circumstances the manuscript was allegedly found. The NY Times reported that the person who “found” it has given vastly differing accounts. So who knows the truth?
    Also, Gregory Peck would have been very upset about this newfound personality of Finch’s. He was a stalwart anti-racist.
    How will teachers teach this new book, as an additional question. How will they compare it to Mockingbird? How will they explain the racism of Finch after he was so principled in the first book? How do they explain this to children who will love Mockingbird?
    Ongoing racism in the U.S. is still a huge, ingrained problem. That can be seen in the horrific massacre of nine beautiful people in a Charleston, S.C. church. It can be seen in the criminal justice system and in police brutality.
    It just isn’t the time to promote a book with a very racist character — unless it’s used as a teachable moment to lambast racism and all bigotry.

    • You make a good point, Kathy, about Reece Witherspoon’s background. Perhaps that’s why she’s the one narrating. You’re right, too, about Gregory Peck’s well-known stand against racism. I think …Watchman brings up exactly the issue you discuss. Jean Louise is a strong anti-racist, who simply sees people, not race. In fact, that’s mentioned a few times in the novel. And, without spoiling the story, I can say that she has a couple of very important conversations about race and the future of the South. Your point – that this could be used as a teaching tool – makes sense given what’s in the book. I’ll be interested to see what others have to say.

  10. I’m in the “don’t wanna know camp”. I loved TKAM and my interpretation of what it was trying to say (however right or wrong I may have been on that front) – I might have been interested in GSAW if it had been released contemporaneously but in the current circumstances I’m just going to pretend it doesn’t exist. Hard to do given the hype but I’ll manage somehow 🙂

    • You’re by no means alone, Bernadette. I don’t know exactly the truth about what happened to this manuscript, and why it wasn’t released when …Mockingbird was. And it’s…interesting that it’s gotten as much hype has it has. As to …Mockingbird, I adored it too. And with that background, I have to say it was a challenge to come into reading this one with as objective a perspective as I could. I’ll be really interested to see what others who read it think.

  11. Exactly the thoughts I had after reading the book (and that means I have a tough task thinking of something new to say). The book could have done with better editing (same things were said in the same words more than once), but in a lot of ways, it was a natural progression to TKAM. And anyone who really imbibed the basic values of TKAM will not be surprised, upset or disillusioned (at least not for long) wit the new Atticus.

    Thanks for a great review.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Natasha. I’m sure that you’ll have a lot to offer us in your own review. I think you make a fair criticism that there’s some repetition in some places. But yes, the two books do flow from one to the next. And the basic ideas of ….Mockingbird are definitely there in …Watchman, too. It’s interesting how Lee does that.

  12. Margot: Thanks for an excellent analysis. I waited until I was done my review before reading your review. The tour is off to a good start.

  13. I will probably read this one in the end (when the hoopla has died down), because I did love TKAM and I think this is interesting as a counterpoint or addendum to it (just like I had to read Jane Austen’s juvenilia, even though you can’t consider them masterpieces). You mention how much about this book is about disillusionment, that the present does not live up to childhood memories – that sounds like a really powerful message in its own right – and I’m wondering if maybe that’s why so many people are disillusioned with Go Set a Watchman.

    • You know, Marina Sofia, I had almost exactly the same thought as I was writing this analysis. Just as the adult Jean Louise has to see Maycomb and her father through adult eyes, so do we. The answers are not as easy as we’d like them to be, and I think that can be disillusioning. It’s part of life, whether we like it or not. I really think you’re on to something there. You make an interesting comparison to Austen, too – one I hadn’t thought of.

  14. Margot, I enjoyed your take on this book. There has been so much written about it before it was released makes one wonder how will it ever stand up. It’s sad that there are still major race problems today. Looking forward to reading what others have to say about this new found book.

    • I think it’s sad, too, Mason, that there are still major problems with race, and not just in the US. I hope we someday find a way to address them, and I think an important part of doing that is facing the fact that they exist. It’s that idea of opening one’s eyes to what’s really happening that is one theme of this book, from my perspective. If you do read this one, I’ll be really interested in your thoughts. As you say, a lot’s been written and said about it.

  15. Great post, Margot. I look forward to reading it. Times change quicker than human nature.

  16. Very interesting post about a book I’m ambivalent about for the many reasons posted above in the comments. I hope to get to it, but I’m in no rush.

    • Thanks, Rebecca. And as you can see (and you probably already knew, anyway), you’re not the only ambivalent person. Part of the hype about this one really is the reaction it’s generated. If you do read it, I’ll be interested in what you think of it.

  17. Nicely reviewed, Margot. I don’t think I want to read this novel right away. Maybe, I’ll read MOCKINGBIRD again before I pick up this one.

  18. Kathy D.

    It’s not human nature to be racist or bigoted in other ways. We aren’t born that way. Children’s aren’t bigoted unless they are taught to be. Which musical is that from, the song “You have to be carefully taught.” Is it from The King and I or South Pacific?

    • Children definitely learn a lot of their views at home and school, Kathy. That includes racism. I’m glad you mentioned that song, too; I may be wrong, but I think it’s from South Pacific.

  19. A great post, Margot. Very interesting. I haven’t read the book yet, but I expect to at some point. As ever, I enjoyed your evaluation.

  20. Margot, I enjoyed reading your analysis. Racism in the south was more ingrained then than it is today (though, there is still lots of work to be done). The racism aspect of the book is what, I think, makes it an important work because of Lee’s frank descriptions of racism. And of course some very lovely language.

    • Thank you, Carol. And you’re right about racism in the South. It was a deeply ingrained pattern, and it’s going to take a lot of work to change that. I think that’s one of the most important themes in this novel. And you’re right: Lee uses wonderful language!

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