Book Review by Guest Writer Joe Szekeres
To all faithful readers of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD who are or might be in a quandary over reviews or of GO SET A WATCHMAN. Follow Atticus Finch’s advice in MOCKINGBIRD when he tells the young Jean Louise (Scout), “If you can learn a simple trick, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Pay no attention to disappointing comments of this “prequel”. GO SET A WATCHMAN helps to shed further light on the denouement of events from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Be prepared, however, to research some important American historical components and elements mentioned in the prequel.
First off, a bit of history. WATCHMAN was first sent by Harper Lee to publishers where she was advised that the story was interesting, but, perhaps, the reader should be introduced to the young Jean Louise Finch. Thus came MOCKINGBIRD and WATCHMAN was sent to the archives of Harper Lee’s sister, Alice. (Upon her death, the manuscript for WATCHMAN was found. Rumour also abounds that another manuscript has been found.) There is some controversy surrounding WATCHMAN as Harper Lee (believed to be suffering from Alzheimers or dementia) may have signed off the rights to the book not knowing what she was signing. This might be potential for future discussion, but let’s focus on GO SET A WATCHMAN.
Here’s the first spoiler - the older Atticus Finch is a segregationist. I want to make it clear that, in our twenty first century, segregation, prejudice and racism MUST NOT BE TOLERATED on any account whatsoever. Now, let’s take heed of Atticus’ advice into context. When WATCHMAN was written, racial conflict and tension were seething and bubbling in U.S. society. Atticus is an elder Southern U.S. born and bred gentleman who believed things and people had their specific places otherwise such turmoil would have been considered “unsouthern”. Think Burl Ives’ performance as Big Daddy from CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Even Rue McClanahan’s portrayal of sexpot Blanche Deveraux on THE GOLDEN GIRLS was part of the appeal of Southern gentility.
In WATCHMAN, the 72 year old Atticus believed the black community, like all communities whether based on faith, status, gender, had their place in U.S. society and should not step out of that mould. Whether we agree or disagree is irrelevant. The elder Jean Louise Finch (now living in New York) has returned to Maycomb to visit and discovers this ‘secret’ of her father. Henry (Hank) Clinton, a family friend and Jean Louise’s hopeful fiancé, holds the same view as that of Atticus. Jean Louise experiences great difficulty and turmoil in learning of these values because they hold no basis in the New York world she knows.
Some of the characters from MOCKINGBIRD have a prominent role in WATCHMAN - Aunt Alexandra, Calpurnia and Uncle Jack. Here comes the second spoiler - Jem is already dead in this story, He died from a weakened heart inherited from his mother who had passed away from the same cause. In his grief over the death of his son, Atticus took Henry Clinton under his wing and began to teach him as much as possible about the law. I had to put the book down when Jem’s death became clear. It’s as if we have just found out about the death of a long ago family friend and we feel terrible that we didn't know sooner.
This is not to say the plot of GO SET A WATCHMAN is highly dramatic. There are some extremely funny sections where the elder Jean Louise thinks about past events from her childhood where Jem is still alive. One extremely amusing moment is the dance to which the young Henry Clinton escorts the fourteen year old Jean Louise. If anything, these funny, personal events from her memory offer an interesting juxtaposition to the heated discussion and confrontation she experiences with her father.
Interestingly enough , a good friend of mine who is a retired Department Head of English has never read or taught MOCKINGBIRD. It might be interesting for these individuals to read WATCHMAN first to see if they have a different understanding of events when MOCKINGBIRD is then read. To teachers of English in local high schools - it might make for an interesting and professional development exercise to have avid young readers complete WATCHMAN first. I plan to purchase a copy for my school library and will encourage young people to read the book.
MOCKINGBIRD was always one of the favoured works to share with young people because it deals with important issues of racism and prejudice; more so today in light of the Confederate flag's removal from the South Carolina’s statehouse grounds after decades of protest against the symbol came to a head following the killing of nine black people in a Charleston church. Author Lawrence Hill of THE BOOK OF NEGROES agreed that WATCHMAN is an important read but there are Canadian voices of prejudice and racism of which we must be aware. I look forward to hearing of your comments once you have finished GO SET A WATCHMAN.
SLOWCITY suggests purchasing your copy of GO Set A Watchman at Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge, Ont.
Book Review by Guest Writer Joe Szekeres