Book Review: Go Set a Watchman

go-set-a-watchman-281x400Go Set a Watchman, the book itself, has an interesting history. When Harper Lee presented her first novel to a literary agent in the 1960’s, the author was persuaded to rewrite it from the main character, the child Jean Louise Finch’s, point of view. To Kill a Mockingbird was the result, a book that became one of the most widely read books dealing with race in America. Now, 55 years later, the “original” book has been released.

Go Set a Watchman begins with Jean Louise Finch, now 26, returning home to the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City, where she has lived and worked for the past few years. She plans to spend three weeks visiting her father, 72 year-old Atticus Finch a beloved attorney who, despite suffering the crippling effects of rheumatoid arthritis, still practices law. Although the novel doesn’t specify the date, it is presumably in the mid-to-late 1950’s, because the Supreme Court has passed the school desegregation law, a 1954 law that has incensed most Southerners.

Having lived in New York, Jean Louise is seeing Maycomb County in a different light. In New York she has worked and lived near people of color, but in Maycomb she’s taken aback by what she sees as gross inequality. Worse, she sees her father, whom she has always worshiped, in a different, unfavorable light.

Go Set a Watchman is an important book for our times. Harper Lee doesn’t gloss over racial attitudes. She looks at the whole person, strengths and flaws together. While To Kill a Mockingbird is considered a coming-of-age novel, Go Set a Watchman is a coming-of-age novel for an adult, a work of wisdom, humanity and passion, a book evocative of another time, but relevant today. It isn’t necessarily a fun or easy read, but it’s a book that made me think. I highly recommend Go Set a Watchman.

Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdI read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, in the early 1970’s. Coming from the Northwest, it was an eye-opener for me to learn about segregation in the South, written by a Southerner. Later, I saw the movie. By this time I was much more aware and had strong opinions of the injustices dealt African Americans, particularly in the South. But the Northwest had its equality issues as well.

This month, our Stanwood, WA book club selection was To Kill a Mockingbird and I was delighted to again read this classic with my even more enlightened awareness. It is a remarkable novel, full of humor and insights into life in Alabama during the late 1930’s. Lee spins a wonderful coming-of-age story of a young girl’s observations of her very limited surroundings. Scout, and her brother Jem, live with their father, Atticus, an attorney in Maycomb, Alabama. Scout’s mother died when she was two, so their black maid, Calpurnia, manages to keep house, cook and take care of the children.

Their world changes when Atticus is appointed to defend a black man who is unjustly accused of raping a white woman. Opinions expressed about the case are, in today’s social climate, shocking. In those days, people were lavishly polite and proper, but many were totally blinded toward the injustices shown African Americans.

Coincidentally, while I was in the midst of reading To Kill a Mockingbird, a news item broke announcing that Harper Lee has another book, one that had first been shown her publisher, Harper & Row. The original novel, Go Set a Watchman, was about a grown woman named Scout who returned to her small Alabama hometown between 1955 and 1957 to visit her family. Lee’s editor suggested that she rewrite the book from the perspective of Scout as a young girl. That book, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960 and was considered to be Harper Lee’s only published book. The just-recently discovered novel, Go Set a Watchman, is expected to be published in 2015 by HarperCollins.

I highly recommend To Kill a Mockingbird. I await with eager anticipation to read Harper Lee’s original work, Go Set a Watchman.