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WatchmanSo, you say you are disappointed and disillusioned to learn that the Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s newly published book is a racist? Imagine then that you are his daughter Jean Louise, aka Scout, discovering that the father you have worshiped for 26 years has feet of clay.

But you don’t have to walk around in her skin, imagining the consternation, devastation and anger of such a betrayal. Lee does it for you in Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins, purchased e-book), an unsettling portrait of a young woman going home to the South of the mid-1950s and finding it’s not “the warm and comfortable world” she remembers.  Of course, that small-town Alabama of Scout’s childhood is what Lee so splendidly evoked in her classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman, written several years before Mockingbird, is a more conventional coming-of-age story that was rejected by publishers until editor Tay Hohoff suggested that Lee set it 20 years earlier and rewrite it from young Scout’s perspective.

Speculation has it that Hohoff may have wanted the changes to make the book more palatable to a wider audience, and thus more saleable. Could be, but I contend that she saw in Watchman’s awkwardly structured series of set pieces what Mockingbird could be. For that, we should all be grateful. Although there is much that is familiar about Watchman — descriptions of places and people, a certain tone and turn of phrase — it is a separate book, not a sequel or prequel, written in the third person. The two books share the main characters of Scout, Atticus, Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack, but Jem and Dill appear only in flashbacks, Calpurnia has retired except for one pivotal scene, there is no Boo Radley. Tom Robinson’s trial, the centerpiece of Mockingbird, is a couple of paragraphs with a different outcome. Henry Clinton is the major new character. A young lawyer taken under Atticus’ wing, he is Scout’s longtime friend and possible future husband.

The plot, such as it is, meanders over the the first three days of Jean Louise’s visit and her not fitting in. The old house, with its wide porch and chinaberry trees, has been torn down and replaced by an ice cream parlor. A “morning coffee” given by corseted Aunt Alexandra and attended by perfumed ladies fills Jean Louise with horror and despair. But her seeing Atticus and Henry at a white citizen’s council meeting condoning a segregationist’s hate speech is what guts her, leading to confrontations with both men, a follow-up with Uncle Jack and a hard reckoning with herself.

This then is very much Jean Louise’s story. In Mockingbird, she is the narrator and Atticus the hero, the book’s moral compass and conscience. In this book, her world is rocked when her conscience parts company with his. Although it was written in the 1950s and is obviously a period piece, its publication is remarkably timely as part of our ongoing national conversation about race. I disagree, though, that this is the book Lee meant to write and publish all along.

Much has always been made that To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t read like a first novel. It’s so all-of-a-piece, so assured. It’s been one of my favorite books since I was 10. That hasn’t changed upon many rereadings and I don’t expect it to. Go Set a Watchman is an unedited first novel, flawed and unsubtle. Promising.

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