L: Review of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” & a Southerner’s Rant

The news of an upcoming release to Lee’s solitary novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was understandably followed by large amounts of hype, excitement, and eventually ado over the supposed circumstances of the release. I’m not getting into that; form whatever opinion you like about it. My choice to be optimistic and believe that this release was intended as a gift to Lee’s readers, however, was greatly supported by reading Go Set a Watchman, since Lee’s talent, writing style, experiences, opinions, and ultimate message practically jumped out of every single page.

Photo from Goodreads.com

Photo from Goodreads.com

The prequel to To Kill A Mockingbird follows Jean Louise Finch’s, a.k.a Scout’s, return to Maycomb, AL from New York as a 26-year-old adult. Since Lee reportedly wrote Go Set a Watchman prior to Mockingbird, the first portion of the book seems to be focused on setting the stage and introducing readers to Maycomb and its inhabitants, as well as to the Finch family. Since we all are well acquainted by now, I enjoyed this part as simple reminiscing and story-telling before the plot thickens and the moral dilemma presents itself. When it happens, it happens fast, and as expected, deals with the sensitive nature of racial tensions in the South in what I’m assuming is around the 60’s or 70’s. The tensions rise as the issue is dissected and I was closing in on the final twenty pages before the resolution and grand moral lesson decided to make an appearance. I was not disappointed.

Although the main message of racial peace and understanding echo throughout the entire book, the finale is focused more on the personal growth of Jean Louise Finch and her struggle to see her father as anything other than perfect and righteous. As readers, we too grapple with any depiction of Atticus Finch that reflects anything other than the moral compass of justice and peace that we grew to know in Mockingbird. We, too, experience the confusion and disappointment we feel in Jean Louise, and simultaneously reach understanding and realization of reality in Lee’s resolution. To Kill a Mockingbird stands firm as Lee’s moral teacher while Go Set a Watchman establishes itself as a lesson in personal growth and awareness. I thought it was a lovely addition to the story of the Finch’s, but Mockingbird still hold the title as Lee’s best and most influential work. I imagine that anyone who loved Mockingbird, loves the South, or loves moral lessons would adore it and I highly recommend it to any and all.

Fort Gaines, GA right around the time of "Mockingbird"

Fort Gaines, GA right around the time of “Mockingbird”

As a sidebar, this book didn’t only speak to me in terms of morality and justice, but also on a personal level, much akin to my feelings about Mockingbird. The very first line takes me home with its mention of Atlanta and the delight in returning home to the South. I’m from a tiny town in southwest Georgia (population of about 1,000) that borders the very same Chattahoochee River mentioned by Lee; we used to say that Alabama was so close that you could spit on it, so many of the specifics mentioned by Lee are delightfully personal to me. The Creek Indians she mentions in passing as the original inhabitants of what became Maycomb, AL are my honest-to-God ancestors; the displays of regional dialect (a.k.a. “yessum” and “not a-tall”) are daily realities in my home town; coming home to find strangers inhabiting the homes and properties built by ancestors and enjoyed by countless generations is a struggle every time my sister and I return home. Lee has a wonderful way of painting a picture of the reality of small town life that few outsiders understand or attribute to the South.

Viewing Alabama from our balcony

Viewing Alabama from our porch

We are all aware of the reputation we have among other states and countries of being slow-speaking, dim-witted racists. I won’t get into the Civil War, because that can of worms need not be opened, but I must say that Southerners are not delusional, and we fully understand that that was a different time and the way things were then was by no means right or excusable. I won’t deny that the South still has a long way to go before equality is a reality, but so does everywhere else. I’ll be the first to concede to the fact that a lot of racists live in the South, but I refuse to accept the sweeping generalization that Southerners are racists. Just as is the case anywhere else, prejudices are possessed by individuals, not groups; groups may form based on prejudices, but the individuals are the ones possessing and acting upon those prejudices, and the South has just as many moral and unprejudiced members as anywhere else.

My family's museum; photo cred to vanishingsouthgeorgia.com

My family’s museum; photo cred to vanishingsouthgeorgia.com

My parents raised me to see every person as an individual by displaying that courtesy themselves, therefore my prejudices are few and my tolerance for injustice is low. I understand Jean Louise better now, having read Go Set a Watchman, because I would feel the same betrayal and rage if I heard a single utterance of racial prejudice come from my heroes. But I don’t, because my heroes are those who see individuals, not generalizations. I encourage everyone who is unfamiliar with the South to give us some credit; we cannot escape our past, but we are learning from it and fostering a more understanding generation. Uncle Jack Finch said it best:

“That’s the one thing about here, the South, you’ve missed. You’d be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side’s the right word. You’re no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you.”

Rant over. Thank you for your patience. Please go read Go Set a Watchman and let me know what everyone thinks!

Headed to Alabama

Headed to Alabama

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2 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Lindsay, Real Talk

2 responses to “L: Review of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” & a Southerner’s Rant

  1. Melanie

    I appreciate your personal commentary on the South, Lindsay. I agree that the sweeping generalizations people make about “us” are unfair and unwarranted. As with everything, a few bad apples spoil the bunch and then pretty soon we’re all heaped in the pile as bad apples. Thanks for being frank and honest in your blog posts!

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