Go Set a Watchman


Oh, how I did not want to read Go Set a Watchman.

I’ve followed this story since I first became aware there was a “new book by Harper Lee” to be published and have written here about that development, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/the-tale-around-the-tale-harper-lees-new-novel-go-set-a-watchman/. Additionally, I’ve written here about The Mockingbird Next Door, by Marja Mills, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/the-mockingbird-next-door-by-marja-mills/.

To sugo-set-a-watchman-harper-lee-cover-678x1024mmarize, I’m skeptical, despite publisher’s claims, that Harper Lee wanted this book to be published. The whole situation . . . Harper’s sister Alice, her lawyer and confidante, died in November of 2014. Shortly thereafter, Harper’s new attorney “found” the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman and after ascertaining that Harper Lee wanted it to be published, sent it on to her agent. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/03/books/harper-lee-go-set-a-watchman-may

In any event, so many people have pinned via Pinterest, googled, and commented on my earlier posts about Go Set A Watchman, I decided I needed to read it in honor of my readers’ interest. I really didn’t want to though.

Setting all that aside, which is very difficult for me to do, Go Set a Watchman is a very talky, nearly-preachy, seemingly early draft of a young woman on the cusp of figuring herself out. She’s fighting between her Southern upbringing and her New York-leanings during the early days of the Civil Rights movement and finding it difficult to reconcile the two.

She was accustomed now to having her family desert her one by one. Uncle Jack was the last straw and to hell with them all. Very well, she’d tell him. Tell him and go. She would not argue with him; that was useless. He always beat her: she’d never won an argument from him in her life and she did not propose to try now.

“Yes sir, I’m upset about something. That citizens’ counselin’ you’re doing. I think it’s disgusting and I’ll tell you that right now.”

Her father leaned back in his chair. He said, “Jean Louise, you’ve been reading nothing but New York papers. I’ve no doubt all you see is wild threats and bombings and such. The Macomb council’s not like the North Alabama and Tennessee kinds. Our council’s composed of and led by our own people. I bet you saw nearly every man in the county yesterday, and you knew nearly every man there.”

Atticus and TomJean-Louise’s father is, of course, Atticus Finch. Hero of To Kill a Mockingbird and nearly every even-slightly idealistic person who ever went to law school, including me. Atticus Finch’s defense of wrongfully-accused defendant Tom Robinson is the stuff of American legend, literary and film classic. But in Go Set a Watchman, Atticus seems like a different person to us. He is tarnished by his stated beliefs in the status quo, opposing civil rights. He has feet of clay.

And Atticus’s brother Uncle Jack and sister Alexandra play huge roles in Go Set a Watchman. Jack and Alexandra were, to me, far more familiar as parts of Nell Harper’s own family as explained in The Mockingbird Next Door than from my recollection of To Kill a Mockingbird. Neither Uncle Jack nor Alexandra ever enters the room without a lengthy and wordy message for Jean-Louise and the reader. Calpurnia is barely there and Jem, Dill, Miss Maudie and even Boo Radley are missing!

Even the trial of Tom Robinson, the subject of much of the substance of To Kill a Mockingbird, is given incredibly short shrift. Here’s the narrative of the trial from Go Set a Watchman, in full:

Atticus Finch rarely took a criminal case; he had no taste for criminal law. The only reason he took this one was because he knew his client to be innocent of the charge, and he could not for the life of him let the black boy to to prison because of a half-hearted, court-appointed defense. The boy had come to him by way of Calpurnia, told him his story, and had told him the truth. The truth was ugly.

Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Macomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl.

Atticus had two weighty advantages: although the white girl was fourteen years of age the defendant was not indicted for statutory rape, therefore Atticus could and did prove consent. Consent was varies to prove than under normal conditions. The defendant had only one arm. The other was chopped off in a sawmill accident.

Atticus pursed the case to its conclusion with every spark of his ability and with an instinctive dictate so bitter only his knowledge that he could live peacefully within himself was able to wash it away. After the verdict, he walked out of the courtroom in the middle of the day, walked home, and took a steaming bath.

After reading it, I’m more convinced than ever Harper Lee didn’t, or wouldn’t have (or shouldn’t have) wanted this book published. I’m going to try to put it away and forget about it; leave the impression of To Kill a Mockingbird beating strongly in my heart. But . . . you decide for yourself. As Uncle Jack tells Jean-Louise, “Every man’s island, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience.”


Seagrams Whiskey

Ice Cream


The Soundtrack from Ray, released 2004, or any and all Ray Charles music


Jean-Louise — Jennifer Lawrence

Atticus — Tommy Lee Jones

Uncle Jack — Robert Duvall

Aunt Alexandra — Ellen Burstyn

Happy Reading!




The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

the dog stars

   Nightly news just not providing enough despair for you?  Need more Ebola/bird flu/AIDS/mysterious illness fear?  How about Putin, ISIS, Al-Kaeda?  What about global warming and the melting of the polar ice cap and the extinction of animals or the prevalence of killer bees?  Just not scary enough to put you to bed with really great nightmares?  I have a solution:  Peter Heller’s post-apocalyptic love song to a lost planet,  The Dog Stars.

    In daeandwrite’s normal posts, there are quotes from the novelists themselves and references to what other media outlets have said about the work.  In this one, I am not going to do that.  The Dog Stars was one of those books that kept popping up on my Amazon recommended reading list, and Goodreads recommendations, and on the shelf at the Morris Book Shop, but I avoided it, sensing that post-apolyptic was not my particular genre.  However, when novelist Will Lavender recommended it during a workshop, calling it a beautifully written book, I thought I would finally take the hint and read The Dog Stars.  Dogs I love.  Stars too.  How bad could it be?


   Heller, a contributing editor at Outside magazine, Men’s Journal and National Geographic Adventure, has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in both fiction and poetry.  I find these facts from his author bio in the book particularly interesting, because I’m fairly sure the publications listed do follow the AP Style Book and use punctuation.  Like periods.  Commas.  Quotation marks.  Heller gives a nod to punctuation occasionally, but it is as bleak as the world in which Hig, the narrator and protagonist of The Dog Stars, finds himself.

Nothing.  Nothing the whole way.  Roads empty.  Blessedly.  Usually are.  Had there been wanderers it would have fucked up everything, delayed our hunt.  Then I would have swooped, cut the engine, played the tape.  I have four songs on the CD rigged to the amp and the speakers:  they are titled

Turn Back North or Die

Turn Back South or Die

Turn Back East or Die

Turn Back West or Die

The words are easy to remember:  just the title over and over.  Followed by the exhortative:  We know you are here.  You will become dog food like many before you.

Bangley made me add that.

   There are passages of beautiful prose, descriptions of nature, fishing, hunting that sing with rapture and glory.  And there is death.  The flu that wiped out most of humanity, followed by “the blood” sickness that took most of the rest, then murder, destruction, self-protection, or looting.

The canopies of cottonwoods still shaded the river parks, some of the oldest and biggest fighting the drought just half dead, still clothed with leaves on one side.  And fire.  Not a corner of the city untouched.  As if it had been fire not flu that had swept death through the town.  The care, every one it seemed, scorched.  Where they were parked in the side streets in their rows, in mall parking lots, out on the highways, where they lay in such a chaos, such absence of patters some giant might have thrown them like pick up sticks.  Whole neighborhoods were burned to the ground.  Others looked as if torched just to melting and left to cool the way a pastry chef glazes a brûlée.  . . . And if there were skeletal trees there were human bones.  I saw them.  Not true skeletons as the connective tissue was gone, but the bones of the dead were everywhere gathered into heaps by some predator and scattered by scavengers.

     My book club members, with perhaps one or two exceptions, would not like this book.  It is so bleak, so realistically depressing.  And yet, such a critical warning bell of what we are wreaking on our own habitat.  The flu that kills The Dog Stars’ humanity is engineered.  The global warming that we mostly ignore has destroyed all the fish and many different mammals.  There are no elephants anymore in The Dog Stars.  No trout.  And very little humanity.  Read it advisedly.


   Heller thoughtfully provides a couple of lovely menus for a book club sprinkled through the despair of the novel.  The first is a meal Hig cooks for himself and his “partner,” Bangley, over an outdoor fire.

New potatoes fried in oil


Dandelion salad with basil

And near the end, Hig enjoys a meal of fresh, creek-cooled milk and shepherd’s pie with butter.  “Well salted.  Ground beef.”

The beverages Hig and Bangley drink are water with an occasional treat of a Coke or a Dr. Pepper from an overturned tractor trailer.

MUSICdog stars

   Heller also gives a full round-up of music from “before,” and Hig’s “after” listening.


“Whiskeytown to Topley to Sinead.  We loved the Dixie Chicks, who wouldn’t.  Amazing Rhythm Aces.  Open Road, Sweet Sunny South, Reel Time Travelers, the scrappy fine bluegrass and old timer groups . . . Brad Lee Folk singing Hard Times.”

Those memories are too much for Hig after, so after he listens to blues.  “I can salve with Lightning and Cotton, BB and Clapton and Stevie Ray.  I can blast Son Seals singing Dear Son until the coyotes in the creek raise up a sympathetic sky ripping interpretation of the harmonica solo.  Piercing howls and yelps.  Sounds like it’s killing them and also like they love it.  Which when you get right down to it is the blues.”


Hig:   Aaron Eckhart

Bangley:  Robert Duvall.  Definitely.

Pops:  Tommy Lee Jones

Cima:  Olivia Wilde

   I won’t end with Happy Reading, because this really isn’t.  But it is a warning bell.

lassie  Lassie, my favorite dog star