American Lit, Book Review, Fiction, Harper Lee, Race, Southern Lit

Thoughts: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

For a long time, Scout (Jean Louise) Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird reminded me of Huckleberry Finn. Just a kid from the American south, smart but crass, and willing to live by her own convictions. Interestingly, Go Set a Watchman has solidified this similarity for me. While reading, I repeatedly wondered: could Harper Lee be the love child of Mark Twain and Jane Austen? I know that sounds hilarious, especially considering how much Twain despised Austen’s work, but still. We have here a merging of regional American literature with a novel of assumed propriety and morality (Jean Louise, like many of Austen’s characters, often pokes fun at presumptions of ‘decorum’ or ‘class’). And Scout, like Huckleberry Finn, is often at a loss for what to do – questioning what is right and wrong, and wondering what is wrong with her when she feels that everyone else around her is mistaken about things like race. And, like Huck Finn, she’s willing to write-off her whole town for lost, striking out for New York City just as Huck lit out West.

I’ve heard and seen some say, “this book should never have been published.” Certainly, Go Set a Watchman is not without flaws, and those who loved To Kill a Mockingbird (and who adored Atticus Finch) are sure to be bothered by much of what happens here. But, ultimately, that doesn’t matter. This book shouldn’t be measured by how we felt about another book or about the same characters told from a different perspective (that of a child) at a different time (20 years earlier). While I can understand why the book is upsetting and how it basically pales in comparison to the original, I can’t agree that it shouldn’t have been published, and I don’t know what the point of that argument is, anyway. It has been published: Let’s deal with it.

So, where to start with this one? I would like to begin by saying that Go Set a Watchman is neither a prequel nor a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, despite what some blurbs and reviews would have us believe. It is the exact some book told from a different perspective and a different time. Even a number of the passages overlap, word for word. This is important. What is most important to note, I think, when deciding whether or not to read this, or what to think about it, is this: To Kill a Mockingbird was told though the eyes of a young Scout Finch, a tomboy who adored her father Atticus, and who could see only the best in him. On the other hand, Go Set a Watchman is the story of an adult awakening to her own individuality, claiming her own identity.

As the old adage goes, “we can’t go home again.” This is the lesson Jean Louise learns, with help from her eccentric Uncle Jack, who tells her that “it is always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along” (269). We readers, too, need to recognize that the Finch family, and Maycomb County, have changed in the twenty years of narrative time (or fifty of actual time) since we last saw them. The Civil Rights movement in America changed people, changed entire ways of life. Most of us would probably argue that this was good and necessary, but that still doesn’t mean the change was or has been easy, especially for those whose worlds were altered the most.

The first sections of the book tell of Jean’s visit home. There is some romance between herself and a man she’ll never marry. We meet Jean’s Aunt, again, and are treated to a host of delightful flashbacks from Scout’s childhood. This part of the book is like going home again, and it’s wonderful! But from the mid-point onward, we have a different story. Jean Louise is repeatedly struck by how different everyone seems, even her beloved Calpurnia. Her best friend is gone. Her brother is dead. There’s no one there to help her navigate the changing terrain.

Uncle Jack and Jean Louise spend the last section of the book discussing how Atticus had been Scout’s idol, her own self, really, for most of her life. Until now, the idea that she and her father would disagree on anything was completely foreign to her, unthinkable. But now Scout must “shake off a twenty-year-old habit and shake it off fast” (271). She has to be her own person, which means recognizing her own failures (that she is colorblind – not in the sense we might mean it now, but in the sense that she genuinely doesn’t see how people act, and are treated, differently, like it or not) as well as the failures of those most important to her, little Maycomb, Henry Clinton, and especially her father. There’s a painful break from childhood, and it’s going to be hard for those of us who were there with her, but that doesn’t mean the book is bad. It’s just hard. It’s a challenge.

I definitely think reading Go Set a Watchman is an exercise in suspending our egos. Which is ironic because Jean Louise has a similar task. For many of us, To Kill a Mockingbird was a special experience, and it holds a special place in the canon of American Literature. Atticus Finch is everything a good American should be: a stand-up guy who defends the less fortunate, who teaches his children to be who they are while also respecting others, who puts his own life and career on the line in his effort to ensure justice and a common good. What’s not to love about that? But, realistically, that was the young narrator’s perspective. That was the story told through memories of an adult looking back on her childhood from a nostalgic distance.

Go Set a Watchman is a worthwhile read for many reasons, one of which is for its intimate look at the many types of racism. It seems that every character in this book exposes their prejudices at some point, but each is also prejudiced, bigoted, in a particular way. Some of the characters simply hate black people. Others believe there’s some kind of natural, biological difference which elevates whites over blacks (and popular “science” of the time that explores this theme is referred to in the book). And still others seem reactionary: times are changing, and they respond with fear and resistance – there’s little real malice in this, just a personal anxiety of sorts.

The book is also interesting in how it addresses the Supreme Court’s integration decision, especially illustrations of how different people react to it; most of the southern characters disagreed with the decision, but some, like Scout, still found it necessary. There’s an intriguing look at the ideological differences between “States’ Rights” conservatives and “Federalist” liberals. Considering recent events, such as the newly-raised debates surrounding the Confederate Flag and “Southern Pride,” the release of this book is bizarrely serendipitous as it tackles the very same arguments going on right now. In reflection, it’s also incredibly scary (and disappointing) that these same conversations are still happening, half a century later.

One difficulty I have with this book, aside from my personal reactions to being disillusioned with the reality of Atticus (who, by the way, may be racist, but who is also still committed to justice and nonviolence) is the narrative construction. While Harper Lee’s prose style is still incredibly attractive, much of the book reads as compilations of scenes with fascinating and revelatory flashbacks, but which struggle to work together cohesively. It becomes very clear where, why, and how this book became To Kill a Mockingbird, but it also left me wondering what might have happened had that original classic developed into something twice the size, an epic spanning the length of time that is ultimately covered by the two works, and corrected accordingly. An interesting thought.

I can say that I think this is a fascinating, intellectually and emotionally challenging companion to To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead of looking to Atticus as the hero of this novel, we’re going to turn to Jean Louise and, despite her own racism, try to applaud her courage in standing up to her family, empathize with her growing pains, and hope the best for her. Will she stay in Maycomb, where she might be able to do the most good (as Uncle Jack so presciently notes: “the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong . . . they don’t need you when they’re right”). Or will she go back to New York, where she can see people of other races as simply people?

Ultimately, I don’t think Go Set a Watchman works well without To Kill a Mockingbird, which is problematic; still, for those who know the originally or who will eventually read it, this one adds so much depth and reality to the story of Maycomb and the Finches. Lee wades into difficult, muddy, maddening terrain; she does it well, and with her own characteristic flavor.

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1001 Books, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Coming-of-Age, Courtroom Drama, Events, Fiction, Harper Lee, Historical Fiction, MockingbirdReads, Read-Alongs, Social Drama, Southern Lit

Thoughts: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

2657To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 46

Harper Lee’s noted –and only- work, To Kill a Mockingbird, has become a classic piece of literature and a staple of American culture and southern history.  The narrator and protagonist, Scout Finch, along with her brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, begin the story as lighthearted, inquisitive and playful children who are fascinated by a mysterious neighbor named Arthur “Boo” Radley.  As the story progresses, they have a series of encounters with Boo, but they do not know it (until all comes to a head in the tragic and life-altering conclusion).  Jem and Scout’s father, Atticus, is the town (and county’s) best lawyer, and also a representative to the state legislature.  He is tasked with defending a black man against the charge of rape, and the task will change his children forever.

Although the book directly wrestles with issues of racism, violence, bigotry, caste, and education, its primary concern is coming of age and loss of innocence.  Scout’s innocence, in particular, but also Jem and Dill’s, is threatened by successive incidents that reveal to these generally kind, somewhat simple kids the presence and nature of human evils.  This is especially made clear with the conviction of Tom Robinson, a black man who, from the start, was bound to be found guilty, despite Atticus Finch’s brilliant defense and the clear evidence support Robinson’s innocence.  This conviction shatters Jem’s world and forces him into manhood, meanwhile causing Dill, a gentle and artistic soul, to face the harsh realities of a world he tries so hard to avoid.

The trial is only the first of two major incidents which will change the kids’ worlds.  The second happens at the end of the book, when the man whom accused Robinson of rape (and whom Atticus clearly implicates instead), attempts to make good on his promise to ruin Atticus Finch.  Although neither he nor anyone in his family was punished for their perjury and false accusations, and although Robinson was ultimately convicted and suffered the harshest fate, Bob Ewell still feels it necessary to seek his own justice for the “damage of character” done to him at the trial.  This particularly subplot is particularly telling of how class, within white society, is just as important and just as divided as the world of blacks and whites.

Ultimately, To Kill a Mockingbird is an exploration of human nature and each individual’s capacity for both good and evil.  It is a commentary on the importance of moral education – much more so than academic education, and a discussion on social class and the true meaning of justice (and who is entitled to it).  Harper Lee utilizes interesting Gothic techniques, reminiscent of the great southern Gothics such as Flannery O’Connor, to build tension and anticipation, and to foreshadow the story’s more important events.

Allowing the story to be told from Scout’s point of view, in retrospect, adds both honesty and evidence to the story, but also some room for doubt.  She narrates the entire story in the first person, as through her childhood self’s eyes, but then adds analysis and supplementary thoughts to the narration, as an experienced adult revisiting these events after many years.  The inclusion of these comments makes the narrator more trustworthy, as it reveals to us that she is aware (and admitting) that she is somewhat distanced from the time and place of the story and, therefore, could possibly be over or under-exaggerating certain things.  The tone of her narration, like the tone of the story, begins in childhood innocence but becomes increasingly foreboding and self-conscious as the tale unwinds.

To be sure, To Kill a Mockingbird holds a beloved place in the hearts of many readers and also a coveted spot in the canon as a “classic” of American literature.  When I first read this book, many years ago, I was not as much of a fan as I thought I would be, but this re-read has proved me wrong.  The book is well-written and masterfully constructed (where and how Lee begins the story, for instance, really struck me as perfection, this time around).  The characters, good, bad, and indifferent, are believable, interesting, and important to the plot and scenery.  This is a book I will be revisiting again and again.

I read this book as part of a read-along, with additional thoughts posted Here.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 16+
Interest: Social Justice, Racism, American South, Courtroom Drama, Coming of Age, Southern Gothic.

Notable Quotes:

“Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies” (9).

“There were other ways of making people into ghosts” (12).

“It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind” (19).

“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults” (99).

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (103).

“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that just doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” (120).

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what” 128).

“Dill was off again. Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head. He could read two books to my one, but he preferred the magic of his own inventions” (163).

“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks” (259).

“Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret court of men’s hearts Atticus had no case” (276).

“I came to the conclusion that people were just peculiar. I withdrew from them, and never thought about them until I was forced to” (279).

“As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra” (321).


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Books, Events, Harper Lee, MockingbirdReads, Read-Alongs, Reading Event

TKAM Read-Along: Part 1 (Ch. 1-11) (#MockingbirdReads)

pp-mockingbird3Hi, Everyone!

This is the first check-in post for our read-along of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In this post, we cover chapters 1-11 (or “Part One” of the book).

Check-in #2 will cover chapters 12-21 and will go live on Thurs., July 25th.

Check-in #3 (or final review) will cover chapters 22-31 and will go live on Weds., July 31st.

If you want to link-up your own thoughts, your answers to my questions (below), or, eventually, a review of the book, you can do so at This Post. You can also still sign-up to join us in this read-along by visiting This Post

Participation is totally voluntary, of course. Linking-up to your check-in posts and “registering” is just a way for those of us who are reading the book to visit one another, see what we all think, and engage in some fun conversations about this piece of classic American literature.  I’m sure we’ll all have different experiences with this one, and I look forward to reading your thoughts!

Summary of Part One:

At the beginning of the book, we meet our narrator, Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, as well as her older brother, Jeremy Atticus (“Jem”) Finch.  Scout is entering the first grade and her brother is almost ten, but they seem to be close friends and playmates, despite the age difference and differences of temperament. Scout is a tomboy who does not take kindly to be called a “girl” and Jem seems to be something of the All-American boy type.  He respects his father, Atticus, immensely, and wants to be a gentlemen, just like his dad.  We also meet their friend, Charles Baker (“Dill”) Harris, who stays with his aunt, Miss Rachel.  We later learn that he might not have much of a permanent home at all – he is creative, dramatic, and imaginative, and he becomes obsessed with the mystery of Scout & Jem’s neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley.

In this first part, Jem and Scout (and sometimes Dill) are at the center of the story.  We readers see much of their world, Maycomb, through their eyes – but we see more clearly the racism, myths, and legends than they do, and particularly more than Scout as she is so young and in many ways quite naive. The child’s play (and especially the presence of Dill) seems to be the central focus – youth, innocence, and playfulness.  There are hints, as the chapters go along, of darker things to come – which leads me to believe that this will be a coming-of-age story for both Scout and Jem.

Some of the other interesting interactions include Scout’s relationships at school, both with her classmates and with her teacher.  Scout shows herself to be quite bright, thanks to instruction from her father, but the teacher is clearly threatened by her intelligence and her ability to read.  Jem is balancing between childhood and adulthood, viewing his father in ways that Scout can’t, yet.  He still grasps childhood in many ways, as demonstrated by his playtime with Dill and Scout, but he longs to know more about and be more like his father, Atticus. 

The mystery of Boo Radley is dangled in front of the reader in many ways, but mostly through a child’s somewhat mystified view.  There is no clear reason given to us to fear Boo Radley, but his private nature, the history of his father and family, and the supernatural wonderment of childhood in general all help to construct an eerie, ominous aura around his character.  Some of the more clear-headed and just adults, like Atticus and Miss Maudie, try to help guide the children toward compassion and hint at deeper troubles in the Radley family’s past. 

Near the end of Part One, a fire takes Miss Maudie’s house and threatens the entire neighborhood.  Though Miss Maudie takes the events in stride, this fire seems to be a turning-point of sorts.  Immediately afterward, Scout  begins to learn more about what her father does for a living, and about the troubling case he will soon be involved with (as a lawyer).  People’s darker natures – racism, bigotry, and ignorance- begin to show, and in such a way that Scout, who is growing up, can begin to comprehend and feel threatened by it.  The trial of Tom Robinson is clearly going to change Scout’s world forever. 

My Thoughts:

Well, the first eleven chapters cover approximately two years, which is already a departure from what I remembered of my first read, years ago. I thought the entire book took place during one summer.  Oops!  I also remembered the book being narrated entirely from a child’s (Scout’s) point of view, but while it is Scout’s POV, the narrative voice seems to fluctuate between adult, past tense, and childlike in-the-moment, such as in dialogue.  This is interesting – it really does make it feel like an adult’s recollection of her childhood, which is exactly what the narrative is. 

I’m also enjoying the narrative structure more than I remembered (or perhaps more than I was able to appreciate the first time).  The use of ellipses in Scout’s tales of Boo Radley, for instance, create an interesting sense of positive mystery.  We learn that Boo is probably the one responsible for doing nice things for the kids, such as mending Jem’s pants and creating soap figurines of Scout and Jem, but this is never implicitly stated.  It adds a complexity to the story, a sort of guessing game that makes us sympathize with Boo (in a way that Atticus and Miss Maudie probably do) without even having met him, yet.  

Finally, I really enjoy the gothic elements of this story.  It was not something I remembered at all, and I rarely see it talked about.  We get the sense of the gothic from the legends and secret tales of Boo Radley (all great gothic stories have ancient and scary word-of-mouth tales at their core), and also the superstitions that fill Part One.  These are all childlike in nature, so it may be something that fades away in the rest of the book, but I enjoy it here.  The gothic mood is intensified with the extraordinarily cold temperatures and snow that arrive in Maycomb for the first time in anyone’s memory (an exhausted technique, but still wonderful!), the fire, and the mad dog (which reminded me of something out of E.A. Poe).  All of this, I think, leads up to the danger that will be Tom Robinson’s trial.  

Overall, I’m enjoying To Kill a Mockingbird quite a bit – much more than I did when I read it the first time, about 5 or so years ago.  I still find the prose somewhat dry, but I love the characters and I’m interested to see how the rest of the book will compare to this “Part One,” which is clearly constructed to present a childlike “before” picture to what will be happening “after.”  

Questions:

“When we were small, Jem and I confined our activities to the southern neighborhood, but when I was well into the second grade at school and tormenting Boo Radley became passé, the business section of Maycomb drew us frequently up the street past the real property of Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose”  (114).

1. What are your impressions of Scout as narrator?  We know she is young, but clearly the narrative voice is quite sophisticated. Do you see any conflicts or problems with this?  Or do you find it effective?


“[Miss Caroline] discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste.  Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading” (19).

2.  This book, though perhaps most widely known for its statements about equality and civil rights, also clearly has something to say about education.  Given what we know about Scout’s “learning,” her teacher’s reprimands, and the state of children such as the Ewells, what does To Kill a Mockingbird seem to say about education? What are the other (higher?) priorities?


“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” (32).

3.  And, just for fun:  Who is your favorite character so far?  Least favorite?  Why?


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1001 Books, Harper Lee, Re-Reads, Read-Alongs

Read-along: To Kill a Mockingbird (July 15 – Aug 1)

pp-mockingbird3So, dear readers, I have this a nasty habit of obsessing over “best of” lists, when it comes to books. Best of a certain genre; best of a certain country; best of a certain time period; best for a certain type of reader. Whatever. If it’s on a “Best Of” reading list, odds are I’m going to download that list, save it somewhere, and become determined to read off of it (though I never really do).

That being said, I’ve also been thinking about the many books of classic literature which I did not like when I first read it, but which I really enjoyed/loved upon re-reading. This includes Old Man and the Sea, Pride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby, among others.

One book that appears on almost every “Best of” or “Must read” list, but which I did not particularly enjoy when I first read it, is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Now, because it is such an important work, and because I’ve recognized this pattern in myself, I have decided to give it a second chance. But I’m hoping I’ll have some company!

This will be a simple read-along. If you want to join me in reading (or re-reading) this very important piece of American literature, I’ll be glad to have you! I’m planning to read it from July 15th – August 1st. Nothing insanely special planned (it’s jammed between my Beats of Summer and Austen in August events); I think conversing with others about the book will be eventful and interesting enough, but if anyone does want to provide a guest post, giveaway, or what not, please feel free to get in touch!

The master post will go up on July 15th, which will have the scheduled posting dates (approximately 10 chapters per check-in).  You’re free to post your thoughts at each check-in, or just plan to do a final review/thoughts post on August 1st, which is when I plan to have mine up.

If you’re in, simply fill out the Mister Linky below, and I’ll see you on July 15th!

About the Book:

“The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.”

                             -indiebound.org

To discuss this read-along on Twitter/Facebook, let’s use #MockingbirdReads



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Bart Yates, Chuck Palahniuk, Dennis Cooper, Fiction, Gay Lit, Harper Lee, Jack London, Jim Grimsley, Keith Donahue, Lydia Child, Native American

Reviews: The Earlies Part 3

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Great. Book.

The Stolen Child by Keith Donahue

This book took me forever to read. It was just… a lot more boring than it should have been, considering the very interesting subject matter and plot. I think it would make a wild movie, but the book lacks something.

Hobomok by Lydia Maria Francis Child

Pretty interesting and fairly realistic (as opposed to The Last of the Mohicans, say?) depiction of the interaction between puritans and native americans.

Wrong by Dennis Cooper

Wow. Dennis Cooper.

Dream Boy: A Novel by Jim Grimsley

One of the first gay novels I ever read – probably picked it up in 8th or 9th grade. It’s well written, fun, sad, cute, tragic, sexy, and beautiful. I’ve read it 3 or 4 times over the years.

The Brothers Bishop by Bart Yates

Very interesting gay fiction.. two brothers, both gay. One responsible, one not. One a high school english teacher, fallen for a student but able to keep his distance. The other, well, doesn’t keep his distance. And all the fun, drama, and consequence to follow.

Haunted: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Twisted and Bizzare and absolutely wonderful.

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Pretty good read. I think I actually enjoyed the movie more, though.

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