On WKAR’s Current State, I reviewed the new (and it is still weird to say this) book by Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman. This might have been the hardest review I ever had to do on the show for many reasons, as you will see below.
You can listen to my new review here: http://wkar.org/post/book-review-go-set-watchman-harper-lee
If you would rather read my review, you can do so below.
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If you want to check out my other book reviews for WKAR’s Current State, you can do so via links on this page.
Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
In 2003, The American Film Institute did a list of the 100 greatest movie heroes. On the top of that list was Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, the film based on the award-winning novel by Harper Lee. Yes, a small-town lawyer from Alabama beat out Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Superman. Let me repeat that- Atticus beat Superman.
I love To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s not just one of my favorite novels, but also one of my favorite movies and plays. It is one of those rare American classics, able to jump off the page and become more than just a novel. It has become an icon of American culture.
Go Set a Watchman was written by Harper Lee before To Kill a Mockingbird, but the events of it take place after that classic novel. There have been numerous news stories questioning the discovery and publishing of it. Whatever the case, it is done now and the book is out. And in this work, Harper Lee accomplishes something no critic or villain could have ever done. She made the great hero Atticus Finch weak and tragically wrong. The Atticus we meet in Go Set a Watchman isn’t anything like the justice seeker we’ve come to know and love. Instead, he’s a racist, who complains that the Supreme Court has struck down segregation and thinks the NAACP as meddling with states’ rights. He has even attended Ku Klux Klan meetings. Every character in the book tries to justify their prejudices and in the end even Scout accept them, but they are prejudices nonetheless.
In the novel, an older Scout returns home to Maycomb, Alabama to take care of her ailing father. She spends her time thinking about the death of her brother Jem, and the fond memories she shared with her family. But when she discovers her father’s views on race, she starts to question everything she once believed about him and her childhood. The moment when she confronts Atticus in this book is one of the most heartbreaking and disappointing I have ever read. While some of the passages in Watchman are filled with the wit and lyrical descriptions we expect from Harper Lee, it’s backwards view on prejudices tarnishes Mockingbird’s legacy.
Writer Toni Morrison once described Lee’s first book as a white savior narrative. I used to think of that description as unfair, thinking it took away from a story that has done more good than bad in our culture. Yet, after reading Go Set a Watchman, I’ve started to rethink my stance. Was I, like Scout herself, looking at the Atticus of Mockingbird through rose-colored glasses? Should the book be retired to the shelf of dated classics like Gone With the Wind?
Both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman deal with the loss of innocence. And after reading this newly-published book I think the readers share in that loss. Saying goodbye to the Atticus Finch we thought we knew is painful for the countless people who have read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird. But while Go Set a Watchman will likely never achieve the same success of Lee’s more famous novel. Maybe it can still teach us something. Sometimes we need our heroes to fall, so we can rise up and demand something better… even from our literature.