Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Pub Date: July 2015
The case of Go Set a Watchman is a unique one to be sure, and the controversy surrounding its publication is intriguing. Written before Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, but chronicling events set after the events of Mockingbird, Watchman re-introduces readers to Mockingbird‘s iconic characters, except with a decidedly bleaker, more cynical tone. In other words, the rose-colored glasses of childhood are gone.
That said, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Watchman. Then again, I had never connected with Mockingbird all that much, and do not have much use for hero worship. As a reader, I always like the characters in my novels to be realistic and flawed. Also, I listened to the audiobook which featured Reese Witherspoon’s superb narration. In Watchman, we meet a grown-up Scout as she travels home to Maycomb Alabama from New York City, where she has been living. It is the mid-1950s, and the Civil Rights Movement is starting to gain momentum. Scout’s –Jean Louise’s–visit home to Alabama occurs shortly after the Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. During her visit home, Jean Louise encounters her father at a meeting of segregationists who are disturbed by the growing influence of the NAACP in Maycomb and the rest of the South. The notion that Atticus Finch could be racist comes as a shock to Jean Louise, much as it will to loyal fans Mockingbird’s Atticus, who famously promoted Thomas Jefferson’s slogan “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none!”
Watchman hinges on Jean Louise’s realization about and growing disillusionment with her father and conditions in the South, the North, and the country as a whole. Again, the chance to defend a black man arises, and Atticus wants to take the case – but his reasons in 1954 at age 72 are much more complicated than promotion of “equal rights.” Through many arguments with her father; her beau Henry, a local Maycomb boy; her aunt Alexandra and her uncle Jack, Jean Louise is forced to dismantle the idyllic vision of Atticus that she has kept close to her into adulthood, and replace him with the older, more complicated version who nonetheless is a piece of her own soul. She confronts what, at some point, every child must: realizing that her memory of Atticus is really a memory of her childhood self.
Watchman is a shorter, tauter book than Mockingbird, with more nuance and a better reflection of reality. It is a product of its time, and Scout herself is not without her own racial prejudices, of course. The bulk of the book is the aforementioned discussions, arguments and struggles Jean Louise has with her family and herself, but happily, readers will also find anecdotes of the childhood Scout, Jem, and Dill, alive and well in Jean Louise’s memory.
I would recommend Go Set a Watchman to readers who are open to another side of a beloved story.