Reading, for me, is entertainment and an escape from the real world. But it can also inform and stretch the boundaries of the life I live.
Warning: This review is spoilery, in case you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know the big reveal.
This is the story of a young woman who returns to the small southern town she grew up in, only to find that she is not able to feel at home and that her remaining family and friends hold racial and political views that she finds abhorrent. In particular, she is devastated to discover that her father, an attorney who instilled in her the firm principles of “equal rights for all, special privileges for none”, is a white supremacist, and that the black housekeeper who raised her does not actually love her as a daughter. In the end, she finds a way to reconcile the deep love she feels for her father with the fundamental moral divide between them. This story takes place and was written in the 1950’s, as the civil rights movement is heating up in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, by a young woman who herself had fled her small southern home town.
There are some bright spots in this book. The flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood stand out, and it is easy to understand why Harper Lee’s editor urged her to rewrite the book completely as the adult Jean Louise’s memories of key childhood events. The middle section of GSaW contains scenes that are deeply moving, where we experience Jean Louise’s pain and loss on finding that Calpurnia is using her “company manners” and treating her as any other grown white woman, and Jean Louise’s growing disquiet, then disbelieving horror, on discovering her father and boyfriend’s true beliefs and active participation in white supremacist activities.
I had some serious problems with this book, though. The first third is deadly dull and there are odd passages throughout the book that throw the pacing off, like the paragraphs that go on and on about the Methodist style of worship. Jean Louise is not exactly the “color blind” paragon of virtue that she believes herself to be, although maybe this reflects the actual limitations of white liberals in the 1950’s. I wasn’t alive then, so I don’t know. She apparently still views southern blacks as inherently inferior to whites and incapable of effective government, although she feels they still should be able to fully exercise their equal rights. As her uncle and father explain their points of view, we are treated to an argument for state’s rights and the revisionist version of the Civil War that was fought, not over slavery, but over state self-determination. Jean Louise does not point out the obvious flaws in these arguments. She doesn’t engage in debate. She merely shouts about his betrayal of the moral principles he taught her. In the end, she capitulates and apologizes for haranguing her father over his views and his betrayal, and attempts to reconcile the love she feels for him by accepting his views as a mere disagreement rather than a moral outrage. Although she appeared to have regarded Calpurnia as a mother-figure and loved her, she makes no attempt to reconcile with her. She seems to have written Calpurnia off completely. She came to Cal looking for love and acceptance and comfort, and once she realized she'd have to give something of herself and work for it, she never looked back. I thought this most telling of all.
Before I read this book, I was aware of the controversy regarding whether Harper Lee even had the cognitive ability to fully understand and authorize the release of this book. After reading it, I am inclined to believe that it was a shameless money grab by her lawyer and publisher. I can’t believe she would have wanted this book to be released.
Reese Witherspoon is a tremendously talented woman. Her performance in reading the audio version of Go Set a Watchman helped smooth over some of this book’s many flaws, so I gave the book an additional star for her excellent reading.