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Commentary

Don't return, but learn, from "Go Set a Watchman"

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I was intrigued to learn that a Traverse City bookstore was offering refunds to people who had ordered “Go Set a Watchman,” the long-awaited publishing sensation of the summer. The critics are in near-universal agreement that the book, by the author of the American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, isn’t very good.

Well, there have been a lot eagerly awaited books that weren’t very good, but in this case, the bookstore’s owner said he felt people were deceived into thinking this was a sequel to Mockingbird.

Well, I have read and reviewed a lot of books in my time, fiction as well as non-fiction, though I wouldn’t set myself up as a literary critic. And like millions of other Americans, I both read Mockingbird and saw the movie. For a time I even wanted to marry Scout, once I realized that Laura Ingalls Wilder was dead. You can see why I became a bitter cynic.

However, I’ve also learned that a lot of people talk about books without having actually read all of them. I decided to read Watchman, or actually, hear it as an audio book superbly performed by Reese Witherspoon, though I also have a hardcover copy.

And I am here to tell you that yes, as a novel, it is annoyingly bad. But what the reviewers seem to be missing is that Atticus – who we can’t help seeing as Gregory Peck -- is not a hater, but a man of his place and time. The main unpleasant literary surprise isn’t Atticus, but his daughter Scout, now the 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch.

She is, as her Uncle Jack says, a bigot herself, and more to the point, thoroughly unlikable, so much so that, to my horror, I found myself wishing someone would slap her face hard – which indeed eventually does happen. There are two lovely scenes that could have been in the book Harper Lee eventually wrote, flashbacks to Scout’s childhood.

Clearly whoever first read this manuscript suggested she write a book about the characters as children, the book which became Mockingbird. Yet Watchman is valuable in a way that I don’t think anyone has suggested. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the minds of what were thought of as decent white Southerners in the mid-to-late 1950s.

This is expressed in a series of dialogues between Atticus and his daughter. Turns out they both were angered by the U.S. Supreme Court decision to end school desegregation. They both thought Brown vs. Board violated the Constitution’s Tenth Amendment, the one that says that powers not specifically delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states.

But Atticus also feels that, “our Negro population is backward,” and “the vast majority of them are unable (yet) to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship.” What reviewers mainly have missed is that his 26-year-old daughter agrees – she just thinks Southern whites should have done more to help them along. And both of them hate and loathe the NAACP.

If anyone wants to know why the civil rights struggles were so hard and lasted so long, they could do worse than read the last chapters of this book. And not make the mistake of assuming that attitudes are entirely different in Michigan today.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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