Sentimental Journey


harper lee

After half a century a sort of sequel to the world’s sort of favorite novel has finally been published and it seems that everyone is talking about Go Set A Watchman. It’s been universally reviewed, and everyone from Buzzfeed to Radio 4 has weighed in. I have to be honest – it’s pretty daunting for a fledgeling book blogger like myself to have a go.

Most critics, as far as I can see, have focussed on the supposed fall of a great literary hero, and they also seem to have spent a lot of time reassessing To Kill A Mockingbird, and reviewing Go Set A Watchman as an afterthought. I think that’s doing a disservice to Go Set A Watchman. It deserves to be judged on it’s own merits.

Before I begin, I should say that there are a couple of really huge revelations about the main characters which it’s pretty much impossible not to talk about so if you don’t want a spoiler…. don’t read any further.

Go Set A Watchman is set 20 years after To Kill A Mockingbird. Scout returns to Maycombe, Alabama for her annual visit to her father, Atticus, and finds that while some things will always be the same, others have changed beyond her recognition.

Much of the outcry over Go Set A Watchman has been about the exposure of Atticus Finch, a legendary hero of the equal rights movement, as a dyed in the wool racist. Some have just been sad about this, others have said that they knew all along. I actually didn’t get too hung up about it, because it felt true to the time, and the story. Also my hero was never Atticus. It was always Scout.

My argument is that racism is only one of the themes Harper Lee wanted to talk about in the books. Both To Kill A Mocking Bird and Go Set A Watchman are about heroes, and what happens to your heroes when you grow up.

The plot of Go Set A Watchman is pretty thin, in that it is all about the reaction of Scout to finding out that Atticus is a racist. However, to those who say that that is not enough to hang a whole novel on, look at how much anger and sadness it has caused in the real world.

Go Set A Watchman is not very finely drawn. The anger that Scout feels is daubed onto the pages, not etched. It feels raw and sore and I think that is a reflection of Harper Lee’s disgust at the attitudes of the american south as the 1960’s started to bubble and ferment. There is also not much of a conclusion but again I think that is because at the time she wrote it, Harper Lee didn’t have a neat answer to the attitudes that she observed.

Go Set A Watchman feels like a first novel. It feels angry and sad and slightly unfocussed. That could be seen as a weakness but I think that’s a strength. When I read it I felt closer to Harper Lee, and I gained more of a feel of the USA before Martin Luther King became a household name and equal rights for black people was a received wisdom.

I say it’s worth a good review. it’s rough around the edges, sure, but it does have something important to say and there are flashes of brilliance. Harper Lee writes with an immediacy that comes down through the decades and puts us on the streets of Maycombe with Scout. She also has the enviable ability to write single lines with more beauty than I could ever manage if I wrote more copy than George R R Martin.

Given how I began this entry, I’ve consciously tried not to mention mocking birds. But most of my best friends are in books and  I’m going to indulge myself a little here by saying that  it was a wonderful wonderful thing to be given a reunion with one of my very favourite best friends, Scout. She hadn’t changed at all, and I still loved her.

Best Kept Secrets….

The classic you haven't read yet
The classic you haven’t read yet

Did you like to Kill A Mocking Bird? If you did, you have to read Pobby and Dingan, a teeny wee book by a guy you have probably never heard of, Ben Rice. Pobby and Dingan was published along with Specks in the Sky in 2000, and I wasn’t able to find anything else he has written since. I bought it from a charity shop ages ago and totally forgot about it until it literally fell out of my bookshelf and onto my lap at the beginning of last week.

I realise that this is a big statement to make, but Pobby and Dingan is the closest thing I have ever read to the feel of To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s wonderful.

Pobby and Dingan are the imaginary friends of a little girl who lives in the Australian opal mining town of Lightning Ridge with her brother, mother, and father. One day, they disappear. And gradually she starts to fade away. Her brother (the narrator) wants to find them and so save his sister.

I honk for P and B should be a cult bumper sticker
‘I honk for P and B’ should be a cult bumper sticker

Like an opal, it is small but beautiful. It has a fairytale quality and no sentence is wasted. The story seems simple but it’s not nearly as sweet and innocent as it appears. You feel the dust of the outback on every page and you want to join the search for Pobby and Dingan even if it’s only to spend a bit more time with Lightning Ridge’s extremely offbeat residents. Go and find a copy and make Pobby and Dingan the classic it deserves to be.

And That’s Not All….

Spot the dreamy parachutists
Spot the dreamy parachutists

Because on the flip side of your copy of Pobby and Dingan you will find Ben Rice’s only other teeny wee book, Specks in the Sky. It’s a bit mad, but you end up not caring and happily going along for the ride.

Specks in the Sky is about a family of mother and daughters whose father has left. One day a squadron of mysterious parachutists land in their back garden. And I can say no more than that without spoiling it, but if you are looking for a bit of escapist feminist comedy (as one does) you could do a lot worse than this.

Ben Rice seemed to surface to publish these two books and then disappear completely, never to be seen again. If any one knows him please convince him to write something else. Pobby and Dingan was one of the best surprises I’ve had in a long time of reading.

I’m currently reading The Agony and Ecstasy, a big doorstoppery pot-boiler about the life of Michaelangelo. With a title like that how could I resist?


3 thoughts on “Sentimental Journey

  1. Hi Caitlin,

    I have just enjoyed your review of Go Set a Watchman. It offered more about the book than anything I have heard/read elsewhere. You might have convinced me to read it although I still feel reluctant because I am suspicious of origins! However your references to Mockingbird made me remember how much I still love the book which offers the most acute analysis of all kinds of human prejudices .. and the antidotes … that I have ever read. Atticus was human… and even in Mockingbird I think she conceded that. xx


  2. I really liked your review Caitlin. My own thoughts are probably ridiculous but here goes.
    I’m not quite finished yet, but so far I wonder if she is trying to look at her own nostalgia and the flawed perspective that can bring. I think many people can identify with the wish for a return to the perceived comfort and security of childhood; the endless summers, punctuated by birthdays and Christmas at either end; happiness, and the ‘sameness’ of everything. But as adults we should that a child can suffer from partial recall, or selective blindness even. The reality was never quite as we ‘saw’, even for the happiest of us. ‘Well I never knew THAT about the family!’ is so very common.
    On her return to Maycombe, it seems to me that Scout is desperate for everything to be the same as her childhood perception, and it can’t be of course. Neither in the reality of that time, or the reality of now.
    The thing that she THINKS has changed is the racism she sees in her family, especially Atticus, whose deep conviction for justice and fairness kept her safe in her remembered childhood world.
    But it is Calpurnia who draws her up short. ‘Did you always hate us?’ She doesn’t answer but of course she did. She lived her real life in a world so different from Scout’s. Each, by the colour of their skin, was defined as being on a ‘side’: one to perpetuate the systemised injustice, one to destroy it. And there is no doubt that the Finches participated fully in that system.
    In a crude way, I think Atticus is still seeking what he believes to be fairness and justice. He believes that it is likely one unjust establishment will be replaced with another ; the only change being the peretrators’ skin colour. His is a crude analysis, and Lee’s writing is undeveloped, but I think the idea is incredibly perceptive for its time.
    You’re right. I think it is about heroes and their flaws; growing up; and nostalgia.So for me, it sort of shows Scout’s flaws. But that makes her all the more real, and still my heroine! (Gregory Peck was quite a cutie though)
    Despite the sometimes unfocussed writing I really am loving it!


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