Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
A few months ago I wrote a blog post about why I was hesitant to jump into reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. (That post is here.) Well, I leaped into the deep end of that pond when the book club I belong to voted it in as this month’s selection.
Several surprises awaited me as I plunged in.
- As an editor and an agent, I would never have considered working on the project. The first chapter is literally a nonstarter. Nothing happens in it. Jean Louise (aka Scout all grown up) is riding the train back to Maycomb for her annual trek from New York. We sit on the train with Jean Louise. She recalls her family’s history, the nature of train riding, how the county seat was determined, etc. There’s no tension, no conflict, no action. The only movement is the train swaying down the tracks. As with most train rides for me, I was ready to snooze. I didn’t become engaged in the story until I was 40 percent into it.
- The book leaps from the present to Jean Louise’s childhood without warning. The frequent switches are jarring in the early chapters. Eventually, Lee has a certain sight or smell in the present remind Jean Louise of a childhood moment, but at first the recollections pop up in a disorienting way.
- Lee’s ability to describe a scene or portray a character shines through. From that dull first chapter, this gem appears:
The train clacketed through pine forests and honked derisively at a gaily-painted bell funneled museum piece sidetracked in a clearing. It bore the sign of a lumber concern, and the Crescent Limited could have swallowed it whole with room to spare.
- Atticus isn’t some brain-dead bigot, spouting hate at blacks, which has been a much ballyhooed aspect of the book. In actuality, he remains the thoughtful, kind, man of the law we find in To Kill a Mockingbird. He is struggling with how the Supreme Court has ordered the South to change its ways and presents himself as someone who believes change needs to be more gradual. Yeah, today we find that reasoning as substantial as melted ice cream. But, in the 1960s, many educated whites saw Civil Rights that way–the North interfering with the South once again. As Atticus argues with Jean Louise, the superior civilization of the agrarian South is being pushed by Yankees and the N.A.A.C.P. into disorder. To him, law and order must prevail. I didn’t find this Atticus such a far cry from the Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird who believes a poor black man deserves a fair trial. In this book the same Atticus mistrusts civil rights, which he sees as leading to disorder. And Jean Louise herself, when asked about the Supreme Court decision says, “Well, sir, there they were, tellin’ us what to do again.” It’s almost as if, to these characters, the question, as was true in the Civil War, is more about states’ rights than civil rights.
- The book, like To Kill a Mockingbird, showcases Lee’s sense of humor and ability to stand back and see the silly delight of Southern living. Much as one might make fun of a loved sibling, Lee sees the charms and foibles of the South. Here’s a delightful childhood memory:
Calpurnia had placed three tumblers and a big pitcher full of lemonade inside the door on the back porch, an arrangement to ensure their staying in the shade for at least five minutes. Lemonade in the middle of the morning was a daily occurrence in the summertime. They downed three glasses apiece and found the remainder of the morning lying emptily before them.
“Want to go out in Dobbs Pasture?” asked Dill.
“How about let’s make a kite?” she said. “We can get some flour from Calpurnia . . .”
“Can’t fly a kite in the summertime,” said Jem. “There’s not a breath of air blowing.”
The thermometer on the back porch stood at ninety-two, the carhouse shimmered faintly in the distance, and the giant chinaberry trees were deadly still.
“I know what,” said Dill. “Let’s have a revival.”
- I didn’t like Jean Louise. I certainly never anticipated that response when I had adored Scout! But Jean Louise gets in her head that Hank, her almost-fiance, and her father are both horrifyingly bigoted. So she lights into Hank over lunch in a restaurant, humiliating him in public, and she refuses to let him finish a thought before rushing in to condemn him all over again. Her conversation with her father goes pretty much the same way. Jean Louise turns into the Energizer bunny, rushing around from person to person denouncing them and can’t get herself out of fast forward. Until…
- Her uncle slaps her silent. He hits her not once but twice. Then he explains violence was the only way he could get her to listen. And you know what? It works. For the first time in the book, Jean Louise quits talking and really listens. This is the climatic moment in the story in which the protagonist makes a major shift. Her uncle suggests that Jean Louise stay in Maycomb and help to transition it into its full potential. She seems to think that’s a fine idea. I cannot bear that Lee penned a story in which a woman is brought to her senses by a man’s blows.
- The book continues as it started, with lots of talking and thinking but not much happening. The political discourses do go on and on and form the majority of the book.
- My book club’s collective response to Go Set a Watchman was one none of us could recall ever occurring in the 17 years the club has existed. At the end of each evening’s discussion, every individual rates the book from 1 to 10 (10 being the highest) for, first, how much we enjoyed it; and, second, for how well we thought it was written. With Watchman, the average rating for writing quality was in the 4-5 range, and the average rating for enjoyment was 7-8. Never has enjoyment so outranked writing. But that’s the kind of book this is: You find it fascinating that, somehow, out of this “nest” of a manuscript, the much more artful To Kill a Mockingbird was birthed. I still can’t figure out how the editor ever saw the makings of Mockingbird in Watchman.
What surprises you most in my opinions about the book? If you’ve read Watchman, what surprised you about it?
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Book club in a blog: Go Set a Watchman. Click to tweet.