Monthly Archives: July 2015

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee


So I finally got Harper Lee’s “new” book last week, and since I was single and childless for a bit (husband on work trip, kid at camp) I read like a madwoman. Expect a lot of books to appear soon, since I attacked my TBR pile with a vengeance.

Go Set A Watchman, despite the hype and the proclamations and the people who refuse to read it on principle, isn’t bad. It would be an OK first novel if it was published today, but not a masterpiece. The To Kill a Mockingbird characters are there, but they are skeletal, and the plot centers more around Jean Louise’s personal disillusionment with her father and her loved ones than around the fascinating, child’s-eye view of the life of a small town that made Mockingbird such a delight to read. I read an article a while back that pretty much sums up what I think of it: It’s a great first draft. The article said Go Set a Watchman was the book Harper Lee presented first to her publisher, who told her that the most interesting parts were those about Jean Louise (Scout) as a child, and that she should flesh out those parts. She did just that, and the result was To Kill A Mockingbird. Reading it with that in mind, I found it easier to enjoy the book for what it is – a first novel by a young author. It’s about a young woman who has worshipped her father and valued her upbringing, but after some time away, comes home to discover that the people she has put on pedestals are only human and the town she loved has a hidden darker side she did not see as a child.

Maybe Harper Lee wasn’t competent to make the decision to publish the book after all these years. Maybe her initial editor was correct – the book wasn’t ready as it was, but had potential.  But I do think that the book was published at a time when it can teach us something. To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960, in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, when its message of justice for an innocent man regardless of his race resonated with people who were working for change. In that story, we are encouraged to see Atticus Finch as a crusader for equal rights, and Scout’s view of the world as that of a color-blind child who knows instinctively that racism (and sexism, now that I think of it) is wrong. But today, when it is becoming more and more clear that racism is alive and well in America, and has indeed just been lurking beneath the surface in many communities, Go Set A Watchman‘s revelations about the inherent racism of Jean Louise’s community are as relevant to our lives today as they were when Harper Lee wrote them. This is sad, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to discuss it. Many people are angry that characters they’ve loved for years have turned out to have racist ideals, but I think if they look closer at their own friends and families, they might find that many people have ideals that are…well, less than ideal, and the only way to fight racism (or sexism, or homophobia, or…) is to start examining it honestly. As a white person, I have to say I prefer the noble white people in Mockingbird to the fearful, bigoted white people in Watchman – but that’s kind of the point – Scout does too, until she realizes they are the same people and she has just been blind to it.

OK, I just saved this draft and went to lunch, and happened upon this post in Book Riot that so perfectly expresses what I was trying to say in the previous paragraph that I will just let it speak for me. If you don’t want to click over and read the whole thing, this quote distills it:

Mockingbird is racism for children. It sees only what a child sees.

Watchman is the crashing down of ideals that comes with adulthood, the understanding that everyone is fallible, that many of the people you care about are more racist than you could imagine when you loved them with the innocent trust of a child.

Of course, none of this changes the fact that Mockingbird truly is the better crafted book. The prose is multilayered, the characters are fully developed humans, and the town itself comes to life in a way that it simply doesn’t in Watchman. (Worst part of Watchman: There’s no Boo Radley.) But go read it anyway, because it’s full of things that will make you angry, make you cringe, or make you ill. Most importantly it might make you think, which is the highest aspiration of literature, at least in my world.


Euphoria by Lily King


I found out about this book by proofreading one of my library’s booklists. I can’t even remember which one, because I waited forever on hold and now the details are fuzzy. This happens to me a lot – I request something, and then when it comes I think “why did I request this?” but I usually read/listen to it anyway. It was probably on the “Historical Fiction” list.

The book is about anthropologists studying the tribes along the Sepik River in New Guinea in the 1930s. It is loosely based on the real life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, but I didn’t know much about Mead so I had no idea how the love triangle thing was going to work out (and as I found out later, King didn’t actually follow their story, so even if you know how Mead’s story ends, that won’t spoil it). Here’s the scoop: Andrew Bankson (based on the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson) has been studying the Kiona tribe for several years. Depressed after the deaths of both of his brothers, he has lost sight of the purpose of his studies and attempts suicide, which members of his tribe avert. While recovering, he meets Nell Stone (Mead), an American anthropologist who has just written a controversial book about the sex lives of the last tribe she studied, and her Australian husband Fen (Reo Fortune). The couple seems worn and exhausted by their recent experiences with the violent Mumbanyo tribe, and they talk about going to Australia. Lonely Bankson becomes determined to keep them there and talks them into studying the Tam tribe, a few miles up the river from the Kiona, so that he can have them nearby.

A strange relationship develops. Bankson waits a few weeks, then travels to visit the couple. Only a few minutes after he arrives, he falls seriously ill, and Fen and Nell take turns nursing him back to health. It is unclear at this point which of our love triangle is attracted to whom – it’s almost as if Nell and Fen both have become infatuated with Bankson, while Bankson has eyes only for Nell. As Bankson recovers, all three of them delight in working together and appreciating each other’s intellect, and together they come up with “the grid” – a method of arranging groups of people according to their character, which Bankson later publishes in a paper under all three of their names. But there is trouble in Paradise – Nell is obsessed with the seemingly female-dominated culture of the Tam, and as she writes her ideas furiously, is once again threatening to overshadow Fen, who is already jealous of her status as a published author. As Fen’s jealousy simmers, he becomes obsessed with going back to the Mumbanyo to retrieve an artifact that he thinks will make his career – even though it is a sacred object to the tribe. Meanwhile Bankson, his love of anthropology rekindled by Nell’s example, falls so deeply in love with her that he neglects his work with the Kiona to spend most of his time with the Tam. Tension builds until Fen makes a rash decision, which leads to Nell and Bankson making rash decisions, and so many unfortunate events follow that I can’t tell you anything more or I’ll ruin it.

Just read it. If you like love triangles, or stories about people who become immersed in or obsessed with their work, or historical fiction, or anthropology in general, you might enjoy it. I myself was shocked by how colonial these anthropologists seemed – they just parked themselves in the middle of a tribe, and rather than trying to blend in unobtrusively, they seem to have no concerns at all about corrupting their data by influencing the tribes they hope to study. (The Star Trek fan in me was scandalized by their blatant violations of the Prime Directive.) If you are looking for facts about Margaret Mead’s life, however, you might look elsewhere. Some reviewers on Amazon complain about the license King took with the events, and of her factual mistakes (for example, she mentions monkeys in a region where no monkeys are found), but I tend to go with the author’s explanation of the book: “While I have borrowed from the lives and writings of these three, I have told a very different story.” In other words, there’s a reason it’s a novel, people, and not a biography. If you want biography, there is plenty of source material on these three. Speaking of which, I just got Margaret Mead’s autobiography, so I have some reading to do…