Goodreads Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Three Star review, originally posted here on September 11, 2015.

** spoiler alert ** Well, as everyone probably knows, there’s been a lot of controversy about this book. There shouldn’t be, though, at least not regarding the content.

The basic gist is that Scout returns home and discovers that the seemingly black-and-white world of her childhood is not so black-and-white after all, and the people who she most loved and trusted turn out to be imperfect. More specifically, Atticus Finch, her beloved father and a literary figure who has for decades been held up as the epitome of morality and perfection, turns out to be racist. Any adult readers who are upset at this revelation should not be. There are no perfect people, even amongst our heroes. Atticus doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been said a thousand times by a thousand other people. The lessons that we are supposed to learn by the end, I think, are that it’s possible for people to be well-intentioned and still be so very very wrong, that it’s still possible to love someone even if you vehemently disagree with them, and that nobody is perfect- nobody even comes close. Nothing earth-shattering here.

Should we be mad at Atticus? Absolutely. Should we be mad at the book for revealing Atticus? Absolutely not. Yes, Atticus says and does some seriously racist shit, and if we met him, we should be upset at him. But Scout takes care of that on our behalf. As a loud-mouthed, justice-loving tomboy, I related to Scout a lot as a kid, and I relate to her just as much now that she is an adult who (thanks for this, Harper Lee), remains a loudmouthed tomboy in her adulthood. It is Scout’s job, not Atticus’, to act as our moral compass here, to push back against the injustices around her, to see Atticus for exactly what he is and parse this information on behalf of the reader. By being a social outsider (she wears pants!), she can help us step back and look in at this world that is simultaneously so familiar but so foreign to her, and to see how different people react to the same situation. Aunt Alexandra is old-school unapologetically racist; she reads a racist pamphlet and goes “There is nothing wrong here! Black people are terrible!” Atticus inputs data with good intentions but comes out with totally incorrect output- reads a racist pamphlet and goes “This is extreme! Black people are people and don’t deserve to be lynched! But they need to be kept in their place cuz they are too dumb to function and repressing them is the kindest way to help them.” Scout is right there with us screaming “WTF, Atticus?!?!” You are better than this!” Then she calms down and realizes that, hey, he’s still her loving father like he always was- he just happens to be very, very wrong about this very important thing. But the best way in which she can help the situation is by sticking around, showing compassion, and leading by example, etc.

At least I THINK that’s what happens. The book basically loses me towards the end, when, with the help of Uncle Frank, Scout starts chilling out. The main problem I have here is the age old creative writing class rule of “show, don’t tell.” For what feels like the entire last half of the book, Scout and her family are just talking at each other. No action. Just talking. And rambling. It basically becomes the Kooky Uncle Frank Talk Show for a while. It’s just bad storytelling. I’m not sure why this happens, because the beginning of the book was all so very different, and totally fine. By the end it’s just repetitive and dull.

It’s also not totally clear by the end, at least to me, whether Scout’s decision to make amends with her father means that she’s suddenly come around to his way of thinking, or whether she’s still holding strong to her convictions. If it is the former, then that just makes the shoddy story development even worse, because it comes out of left field. Scout is strong-willed, highly intelligent, and operates based on a strong sense of justice; thus having her change her mind would be out of character. So, giving Harper Lee and Scout the benefit of the doubt, I’m telling myself it is the latter- that she accepts her father but not his beliefs, and that this is just the beginning of her long battle for social justice. It just would have been nice if the book had been clearer on this (pretty damn important) point.


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