Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Fine Moments in Go Set a Watchman

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel loved by millions. Its language and its characters delight readers. Go Set a Watchman provides some good passages--unevenly, to be sure, but Harper Lee’s talent is still evident and worth experiencing.

Jean Louise Finch’s love for Alabama and Maycomb in particular are evident in Lee’s ability to describe her hometown, fictionalized in both novels attributed to her. As Jean Louise’s love interest, Hank, drives the two of them to Finch’s Landing, the heat and humidity settle on the reader’s skin. When those characters tease and dare each other into a late-night swim in the river, we enjoy their abandon.

Aunt Alexandra berates Jean Louise for having become a topic of gossip, for scandalizing the Finch family yet again by taking that late-night swim. In that chapter, Lee gives Zandra language that rings true. We also see the Scout we know from To Kill a Mockingbird resent being bossed by someone like her aunt. Young and twenty-six year old Scout still prefer slacks and blouses to dresses and heels, short bobbed hair rather than styled, long hair. Jean Louise doesn’t hold her tongue, but speaks her mind, a mind that Aunt Alexandra doesn’t agree with or fancy most of the time.

The finest moments in Go Set a Watchman feature characters with values different from Jean Louise’s. They chose to stay in Maycomb, marry Maycomb boys, and raise Maycomb’s future. They care about homes, appliances, recipes, appearances, and Maycomb’s residents. They echo their husbands’ opinions and find Jean Louise exotic or strange. Jean Louise doesn’t care about any of the same things they care about and objects to the opinions voiced about race relations.

Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's Birthplace
Photo by Al Griffin. Taken in 2010.

In Chapter 13 about Aunt Alexandra’s coffee in honor of Jean Louise’s homecoming, Harper Lee shows her wit and talent for using dialogue, non-sequiter, and plays on words. While Jean Louise passes sandwiches among the women invited to attend--Magpies, according to Jean Louise--their conversations are mash-ups. One woman’s words are broken by another woman’s as Jean Louise moves from one to the other. We read:

“When he was christened, he grabbed Mr. Stone by the hair and Mr. Stone . . .”

“…wets the bed now. I broke her of that the same time I broke her of sucking her finger with…”

“…the cutest--absolutely the cutest sweatshirt you’ve ever seen. It’s got a little red elephant…

“…and it cost $5 to get it yanked out….” (Go Set a Watchman, Chapter 13, Audible edition)

Lee reveals the focus of these women’s lives to be domestic and personal. They are indeed birds positioned in a line, each one singing a piece of the whole song, a snippet of life’s detritus. Jean Louise fancies herself a woman of ideas, not domesticity. She has little in common with her guests, little in common with Maycomb, we realize.

Reading Challenge:

Read Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

Writing Challenge:

Write snipped dialogue, beginning with one speaker, then switching abruptly to another. Consider using contronyms as Tom Stoppard does in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.