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Book Review: Go Tell A Watchman

Abigail Benjamin

If you buy one book this summer, please make it Harper Lee's first novel "Go Tell A Watchman." This book is Harper Lee's first attempt to describe her pain at the legacy of Deep Southern Racism which would eventually fuel her American Classic, "To Kill A Mockingbird." Fifty years later, Lee's unpublished "first novel" was found inside a safe deposit box by Lee's lawyer.

"Go Tell a Watchman" is both brilliant and uneven. I'd call it "rough-hewn." Some of Lee's sentences are so striking that it felt like I spent $18 to buy a book of poetry, instead of a good pool read. Some of my favorite early 'poetry' lines are: "When she looked thus, only God and Robert Browning knew what she was likely to say," and "Although Maycomb's appreance had changed, the same hearts beat in new houses, over Mixmasters, in front of television sets." 

There is a lot of friendly talk about religion inside of Lee's novel. I don't know how Ms. Lee would describe her faith background but with funny Jesus jokes like these, she'd be welcome to visit on my backporch and or inside my Facebook feed. For example, check out this passage: "Reverend Moorehead  was a tall sad man with a stooop and a tendency to give his sermons startling titles. (Would You Speak To Jesus If You Met Him on the Street? Reverend Moorehead doubted that you could even if you wanted to, because Jesus probably spoke Aramaic.)" pg. 61. 

I liked Lee's novel because it describes a certain type of small town mindest that happens inside the Deep South. Insularity and a World of Oppressive Opinions can happen in the South or in the Midwest or in Portlandia. Underneath the deep tie to the South, however, is the universal story of the Artist, someone who is lonely and longing for community at the same time she is afraid of disappearing inside of marriage and motherhood.

There are some complaints that in this book, Mr. Atticus Finch falls from his pedestal of perfect anti-racism. Personally, I like complex fictional characters. In the age of the Baltimore Riots and the Charleston church shooting, I think its better for me as a white reader to struggle with Lee's proposed question "How much racism have I unconsciously inhaled simply as a matter of being inside a flawed American culture?" In this book written from the perspective of an adult daughter, Atticus is not a saint. The shift in his daughter's perspective of her Father as she matures, and her unlikely resolution of their relationship, has great value.  

"Go Tell A Watchman" proves to us that great books don't simply fall from the sky. Writing is a process. A strong writing community can encourage a new writer to take a decent story idea and work it into a great nvoel.  As a new writer, I felt inspired, instead of intimidated by this work. I told my husband it felt like looking at the sketchbook of Michagenglo's notes for the Sistine Chapel instead of looking at the perfect finished ceiling itself 

Some critics call "Go Tell A Watchman" a second rate book. Who cares? As an author, Harper Lee holds her own against Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert. Have I ever regreted my time spent reading a "second-rate" Austen novel? Moreover, what places Lee along with the great authors is her unique and nuanced character development. After meeting the irrepressible Scout at age 26, in "Go Tell A Watchman," I long to meet Scout again at age 46 and 86!



I'm the cheap girl who always borrows my book at the library. I used my leftover Mother's Day gift card to buy "Go Tell A Watchman" at the only bookstore inside my small Southern City.