Go Set A Watchman. Harper Lee. New York: Harper Collins. 2015. 278 pp.
“I mean I grew up right here in your house, and I never knew what was in your mind.”
To Kill A Mockingbird was assigned reading when I was in high school. I didn’t enjoy it. Part of that, I am sure, was the intensity with which themes were thrust down our throats. The other part was that I do not enjoy stories of precocious children. There was something about me that rankled with Scout’s freedom and sass. Now, as an adult, I finally see the cultural importance of this book and can appreciate it.
So it was with mixed feelings that I purchased Go Set a Watchman. What awaited me? I knew the backstory. This was the first book written. Ms. Lee’s editor suggested changes that would focus on Jean Louise Finch as a little girl in the Depression-era South and her relationship with her mild-mannered father. Scout gave us an interpretation of racism through her innocent eyes. But we also developed cult-like hero-worship of Atticus Finch – Father of the Century.
It is rare to read a novel from the perspective of an omniscient
narrator these days. From the first page, I loved the voice – there is something sincere about the writing from the 1950s. The dialogue is smart and snappy – lively and honest. I couldn’t tell who was mirroring whom: Scout or Harper Lee. But that was fine by me – either was good company.
There has been a lot of scuttle-but about the coming forth of this book. While most of that did not concern me much, I was surprised – gasped aloud and put down the book for a while – by the harsh and honest characterization of Atticus, now in his seventies, afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis and arthritic narrow-mindedness. I can see why the editor suggested the shift in the story. If we are upset, disgusted, horrified and appalled at this older lawyer today, how would we have accepted Go Set a Watchman in the late 1950s?
The characters of Go Set a Watchman are undeniably racist, and yet, forward-thinking. Jean Louise is coming into her own belief system, neatly fed by her father’s influence and encouragement over the years. But when she, as any child does, finally comes face to face with the reality of who their parent really is, and what they think, she is crushed. Her innocence is sucked into a national storm that is battering even her little hometown. Bigotry is evident in Atticus – but discrimination is also clearly seen in Scout.
It is an undeniable treat to read such a raw and true examination of that time in our country, through the eyes of a woman who was there. I did not find a comfortable resolution here and I was still wholly unnerved by the prejudiced attitudes and behaviors on all sides. But I did appreciate that Harper Lee had this story to tell – twice.