Go Set A Watchman
by Harper Lee
Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch – ‘Scout’ – returns home from New York City to visit her ageing father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past – a journey that can be guided only by one’s own conscience.
There has been much debate about whether this book is a prequel, a sequel or a first draft. I don’t think it’s any of those things; more a companion piece to To Kill A Mockingbird. The characters are familiar, there are some passages in TKAM that come straight from Go Set A Watchman, but it tells a different story.
In GSAW, Jean Louise (Scout) is now 26 years old and living in New York, she goes back home to Maycomb County for her 2 weeks annual holiday. During her stay she makes a horrible discovery that makes her physically sick: her beloved father, Atticus, is not who she thought he was. After finding a blatently racist pamphlet amongst Atticus’s things, she follows him to a citizens’ council meeting which has been called to oppose desegregation, and she doesn’t like what she sees or hears.
The book is split into two definite halves. The first half is light, with plenty of humour and reminiscences. Jean Louise spends time with Henry ‘Hank’ Clinton, a long-term friend of hers and protege of Atticus.
Her uncle Dr Jack Finch plays a much bigger part in this book; an old eccentric and close to his niece, he is a perfect foil for Jean Louise’s rage.
The second half, after the discovery, is deep, dark and complex. Jean Louise goes in search of answers to how her father could have changed so much.
The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.
Feelings of betrayal extend to other family and friends,she feels she doesn’t understand any of them and doesn’t belong in Maycomb County anymore. The problem is, she doesn’t belong in New York either.
While this book certainly has its problems; it’s raw, there are lengthy debates on constitutional matters, the rich descriptions of TKAM are missing; it should not be dismissed as worthless. Its subject matter, although difficult, is important. And Atticus Finch is, given his background, much more likely to have been the man in this book than the idealised man in TKAM.
you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart and a man’s failings – Jean Louise wasn’t the only one.
I am pleased this book was published, as a purely historical document it is worth reading. But also, it shakes the reader up, takes us out of our comfort zone –
prejudice..and faith..have something in common: they both begin where reason ends..
– and sometimes we need that.