Book Report: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman

(no spoilers below so keep reading)

If you’re even vaguely into books, you’ve probably heard that earlier this year a long-lost unpublished manuscript by Harper Lee was discovered.  You’ll also remember that Harper Lee was the author of the much-acclaimed and award winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird which was published in 1960.  It was her only published book.  Over fifty years later this lost manuscript is her second novel, Go Set a Watchman.

Now, I did try to resist reading other reviews of Go Set a Watchman to try and have a fair and balanced opinion of the book.  What I did do, was go back and read To Kill a Mockingbird again to reacquaint myself with the story and the characters.  It had probably been close to 20 years since I first read it, and honestly, beyond remembering the names of the main characters and that of Boo Radley, I really couldn’t remember too much of the plot line.   I’m definitely glad I re-read it, but it is not a pre-requisite for Go Set a Watchman.

Written in the 1950’s and set when the main character in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean-Louise is twenty-six, Go Set a Watchman is the original manuscript Harper Lee submitted for publishing.  That manuscript often jumps back to Jean-Louise’s childhood, and thus her editor at the time suggest she re-write the story from the point of view of her as an eight-year old, and thus, To Kill a Mockingbird was born.

In Go Set a Watchman, Jean-Louise Finch returns home to Maycomb county, Alabama from New York city for a visit with her ailing father, Atticus Finch.  Many of the secondary (and even tertiary) characters from To Kill a Mockingbird become central in the plot line, which seems to ramble and go on at length describing events that are less than relevant. Once the story really gets going, and trust me, this is well into the book, it is really about Jean-Louise’s struggle to understand her father, recognizing that perhaps he is not quite the man she had once idolized as a child.

What the book is not, is as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, even if it feels like it could be.  In fact, beyond the character names and the location, the two books are basically unrelated.  Both however, deal with the central issue of civil rights and race in the South, but in very different ways.

Many critics of Go Set a Watchman, were displeased with the portrayal of Atticus Finch.  I did read that somewhere before I read the book, so I had that in the back of my head.  But what I hadn’t expected was my discovery that Jean-Louise is perhaps the ‘Atticus Finch’ of this book.  She, like her father in To Kill a Mockingbird, lives to a higher standard and this is her internal struggle, set against the backdrop of the burgeoning civil rights movement within Go Set a Watchman.

It’s written in the third person but seems to jump to the first-person on a regular basis, often within the same paragraph, which I personally found a little unusual. This is not a page turner by any means.  If you loved To Kill a Mockingbird, you will be disappointed.  If you thought To Kill a Mockingbird was OK, you might read Go Set a Watchman, like I did, out of sheer curiosity.  It’s authentically written in 1950’s prose, so that in itself makes it more interesting than most books.  If you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird (how did you graduate high school?) and are deciding which to read first, skip Go Set a Watchman and read the classic.



Remembering: A Glimpse into life in London – 1945

Last year on Remembrance Day I shared a story that my grandfather had chronicled while serving as part of the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War stationed in Halifax.  I’m so lucky that my grandfather kept a journal and later, in retirement, turned his journals into family books about his life, his travels and his work abroad.

This year I’d like to share part of an excerpt from his book that details his life while living in London in 1945.  My grandfather, Lt. G. F Kelly, was Staff Officer Electrical Engineering and Liaison Officer to the Director of Electrical Engineering, Admiralty, Sir James Pringle. He was part of the Canadian Naval Mission Overseas with the Weapons and Equipment Department.

By 1945 the years of war and rationing had weighed heavily on Britain:

In the stores all goods were rationed and there was very little selection.  The pride and joy of all officers seemed to be a Royals Razor which had it own chrome case which included the honing stone.  These were not rationed but the Royals Store on Regent Street would sell only a small allotment each day to service men.  This meant lining up at 0800 for store opening at 0900.  I did this trip three times and got razors for dad, Mr. Mason (father-in-law) and myself.

Shirts were hard to find but they could on occasion be bought from Naval Stores.  At the time we wore white shirts with detached, starched collars.  Once your shirt went through a London laundry it came back ‘tattle-tale grey’ and nothing would return it to its original white.  Starched collars were hopeless so we bought cardboard ones which only emphasized the greyness of our shirts.

Eating places were scare.  ‘Lyons Corner House’ of which there were several in London specialized in roast beef.  The chef had a very sharp knife and sliced the meat so thin that you could readily read the pattern of the plate through it.  The real saviors of England were Coleman’s Mustard and Bird’s Custard.  Put on strong enough mustard and you never noticed the sawdust in the sausage.  All desserts were smothered in custard and they all tasted the same.  Brussels sprouts were used at practically every meal and we developed a strong dislike for them.

A friend directed us to a ‘fantastic’ steak house, which was naturally ‘black market’.  It was in SoHo and to get to it you had to pass through a store, go down an alley and enter by a back door.  Naturally you paid for your meal two days in advance.  When we sat down we were offered an extra thick strip of steak, with lots of bright yellow fat.  Despite the fat we ate it up.  It actually was not that bad, until we found out it was horse. 

Canadian Naval Mission Overseas 1944-1945
Sorry for the poor quality, but this is a picture of photocopied picture. My grandfather is middle row, 4th from right.

I love how these few little paragraphs give a small but specific glimpse into the everyday life of Londoners during the war.

In other parts of his book he describes his first night in London and being awakened by the sound of air-raid sirens, which he promptly ignores and goes back to sleep.  The next morning he discovers the building directly behind his had taken the explosion and wardens were now searching the ruins.  In other parts he describes how he clandestinely acquired two bottles of rum on the otherwise “dry” dockyards of Bath, set up a little bar in his office and used his little bar to aid in his official liaison duties.

As I mentioned before, I’m so thankful to have these memories of my grandfather in writing so I can remember and understand the remarkable life he led and one day share his stories with my children.

Lest we forget.