My thoughts on GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

51fGhOk4bLLharperlee

Well, I managed to avoid all the hype surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s GO SET A WATCHMAN. I didn’t want to know about it in advance. All I knew was that this manuscript had been kept by Alice (Lee’s sister) in a safety deposit box and was an early draft of writing that pre-dated TKAM. It had the same characters. Considering that I have read TKAM 20 times (seriously) and it is one of my favorite books ever, I pre-ordered it months ago and waited to read it.

(As I write about my reading experience, I will note where there are SPOILERS).

WATCHMAN starts with Jean Louise heading home to Maycomb to visit her family. She lives in NYC now and is in her early twenties. I have to say, that once I started reading, I just felt enveloped by Harper Lee’s writing. It was like a warm bath. Her voice and style is so distinctive (yes, I never believed Truman Capote wrote TKAM. Sacrilege!). I nestled in to the book with the thought, “Nelle Harper, you’ve come home to your readers.” The first 100 pages not too much happened beyond Jean Louise returning home. Familiar characters became familiar once again. (SPOILER ALERT) Most notably, though, Atticus is aging and infirm from arthritis; and dear Jem is dead (passed away before the start of the book from a congenital heart issue). I have to say I was a bit startled by these changes. A new character (or at least one I don’t remember from my many reads of TKAM) is Hank, a neighbor and friend of Jean Louise. He wants to marry her and the two of them seem set for each other. Hank is taking over Atticus’ law practice.

Then a pivotal event occurs (SPOILER!!!!). Jean Louise visits the courthouse to see what the Citizens’ Council is up to and finds a speaker there who is working hard to keep segregation in the South. He spews forth some evil, racist remarks. Jean Louise is shocked but most shocking of all is that her father sits on one side of him and her intended on the other. Atticus Finch is a racist?? Well, I was as shocked as Jean Louise. I was disgusted. I felt tricked. What happened to that pillar of righteous justice from TKAM?? Jean Louise felt that same way.

The next part of the book is her trying to come to grips with this. There are flashbacks. There is a passing mention to the Tom Robinson trial – which is different from the Tom Robinson trial of TKAM but definitely based on the same trial. Jean Louise struggles and fights and rails. Her uncle plays a big role in this part of the book – but to be honest, I found him confusing. His words to her were almost all allegory and “riddles”. I was confused – but maybe that was just me. All the time Jean Louise is seeing racism and prejudice everywhere she looks.

At the end (SPOILER!!) I thought there might be a different wrap-up. I don’t know what I expected – maybe Atticus to slap her on the back and say, “I’m only fooling with you, Scout! And with your readers!” However, I think the ending is important in that Atticus doesn’t change. Scout has seen him for what he is. She accepts him though she doesn’t agree with him. And this is the point where the story becomes a true coming of age story — Atticus is proud of her because she thinks differently from him and stands by her convictions. In her mind, she “welcomes him to the human race”. Atticus has been a demigod for Jean Louise (and for many of us readers). He’s not. He’s human – and imperfect.

So let’s think about the title here. Jean Louise hears them say it in church so I googled it and it’s a Biblical reference from Isaiah. Go set a watchman. Go set a person who will watch over us all. I am guessing Nelle Harper considered Atticus the watchman, as this was a book that pre-dated and was reworked into TKAM. To read this one, you could consider Jean Louise to be the watchman, as she has entered the fight against racism and injustice.

However, shouldn’t and couldn’t we all be the watchmen?

You can see this book at your local indie or on Amazon It’s where I preordered mine ages ago. It is less than 300 pages.

Just a note. I did find the blatant racist language and diatribes in this book hard to read. You might, too.

Review: DOLLBABY by Laura Lane McNeal

I’d hear some chatter about DOLLBABY while I was at BEA, but I wasn’t able to get my hands on a copy. Finally,  a copy came into the library system where I live and I snatched it up!

DOLLBABY is a wonderful coming of age story, set in the South in the 1960’s. Liberty “Ibby” Bell is just twelve years old when her father dies in an accident and her mother drops her off to visit her grandmother, never to return for her. Ibby is a smart and plucky young girl. She loved her father and misses him terribly. She even misses her rather useless and self-centered mother. However, Fannie, her grandmother is quite a character and her unpredictable behavior and closet full of secrets keeps the plot moving. The household is actually run by two long-term servants: Queenie and her daughter Dollbaby. Queenie and Dollbaby take Ibby under their wing, and Fannie tries to rise to the occasion as grandmother. Ibby has questions about the family’s past – but learns early on that asking Miss Fannie questions only leads to disaster. What exactly happened in the house in the past and how does it still have a hold on Miss Fannie? Added to this are several subplots, including the fight for civil rights during this time period and Dollbaby’s quest for personal freedom.

Ibby’s search for her family’s past history is actually a search for connection and for family in its basest form. She seeks to belong and form an identity, left bereft as she is by the loss of her parents. Miss Fannie is a multi-faceted character as well: just when I think I understand her, more information is revealed to show that she is more than one initially thought. I would have loved even more backstory on Queenie and Dollbaby!

I really enjoyed this story, which reminded me a bit of SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT and THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. I love stories set in the South and I love coming of age stories with strong female characters. This is Ms. McNeal’s first novel and I look forward to more.

You can see this book online, or get it where I got mine: at your local public library!

Review: THE INVENTION OF WINGS by Sue Monk Kidd

Oh my. This is a book I can hardly do justice to. It will truly be on my “Best of 2014” list this year!

I loved Sue Monk Kidd’s THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES (and I enjoyed her other two books as well), so I was very excited to get an ARC of her new publication THE INVENTION OF WINGS from Net Galley.

This historical novel tells the story of Sarah Grimké, a young girl of Charleston, SC. Starting in the 1830’s. Sarah receives a personal slave, a young girl named Handful (Hetty), as a gift for her eleventh birthday, and upsets her parents by trying to grant her her freedom. Young Sarah dreams of being a lawyer. Plain and intelligent, she doesn’t fit with the Southern belles of her peer group. She forms a friendship with Handful and almost immediately gets them both into serious trouble when she teaches Handful to read. The story follows Sarah, and Handful, as they grow up and become adults. Sarah evolves (along with her younger sister Angelina) into a passionate abolitionist and worker for women’s rights. Handful and her mother dream of one day being free.

While I loved this story, I was absolutely amazed to discover that Sarah Grimké and her sister Angelina were real people and that Sue Monk Kidd had based her novel on historical facts. How had I never heard of them?? This is a story that must be told. If you enjoy historical fiction, women’s studies, Civil War genre, and/or basically strong female protagonists who are based in reality, then you will enjoy this well-written and well-researched book.

Do yourself a favor and read this book!

Thanks, Net Galley and Viking, for my copy! Looks like it’s a pick for Oprah’s Book Club, too.

Review: Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim

Trolling through Net Galley, I found this great read (its been out since 2010). “Yellow Crocus” is the story of a young girl, Lisbeth Wainwright, and her beloved childhood nurse, the slave Mattie. Lisbeth is given to Mattie shortly after birth for nursing (Mattie is taken from her own little son, Samuel) and she grows to love Mattie more than her own mother. Mattie loves Lisbeth in turn, and struggles to seek freedom for her family. In time, Mattie is sent back to the slave quarters and Lisbeth tries to become the young woman that her family and Antebellum Southern society demands of her. In time she must make a life-changing decision – a decision that will affect her family’s life going forward.

I just loved this book! I love reading about this period in history, and I wished the book had continued to and through the Civil War as I was hoping to see Mattie’s character develop through adulthood and into old age. At times in the beginning of the book it felt a little bogged down with totally accurate but minute details of breast-feeding – it pulled me from the flow of the story a bit. Overall, though, I loved the characters, the writing, and the storyline.

Thanks, Net Galley and Flaming Chalice Press for my copy!