“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”
As with any highly anticipated sequel, there are people out there who say that Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s surprising second to To Kill A Mockingbird, does not live up to expectations. I, however, disagree. This book did not disappoint, in spite of the intense adoration I’ve had for To Kill a Mockingbird since high school. Though GSAW is different than I maybe expected, and has some hard moments and a rather large dose of reality, the book really did capture the spirit of it’s predecessor, just in a more adult and mature sort of way.
Jean Louise Finch (Scout) is back in Maycomb, Alabama to visit her father. She now lives in New York City and has a career – as you could have guessed from her early years depicted in TKAM, she is a very independent woman. Though she’s a big city woman now, going back to Maycomb is still like going back home – except this time she starts to notice how things are changing, and she doesn’t like it.
While focusing on her adult life, there are many new anecdotes from Jean Louise’s childhood which are charming as ever. In this way, it was almost like reading TKAM afresh, but with adult eyes. In this novel she is the woman Atticus raised her, but her hardheadedness proves to be problematic in the end. She sees the world a certain way, and when she realizes that those she loves may not see it the same way as she does, she starts to question everything she knows. The main conflict in the novel revolves around civil rights – Jean Louise, of course, believes in absolute equality among men (she is Atticus’s daughter, after all, and who was he but the man who defended a black man on a charge of rape and got him acquitted?), but she comes to find out that Henry Clinton, her long time friend and current suitor, her uncle Jack, and even her father have the stereotypical Southern beliefs that she was raised (or so she thought) to despise.
“Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.”
Go Set a Watchman was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but when Harper Lee sent it to the publishers they suggested she pull a narrative from those childhood anecdotes and write a book set in that more innocent time. I think in many ways TKAM is a far more enduring classic (which is why it has remained popular for over fifty years, and why this new novel of Lee’s was so highly anticipated from the earlier novel’s fans), but Go Set a Watchman is a nice companion to the novel, and when reading it with TKAM in mind it is quite charming and pleasurable. I will concede that on its own, GSAW may not be a fantastic novel – most of the assertions, claims, and credibility come from knowing the characters in TKAM and thus had you not read it before digging into GSAW, the book would probably fall flat.
For those who tout this novel, however, as a failed comment on race or even racist are looking at the story completely wrong. One must remember while reading it that it was written in the fifties – the way of thinking at that time was completely different from our thinking now. The novel is not supposed to be focused on segregation, the NAACP, and white supremacy, but rather on the relationship between father and daughter, and how this can change from childhood to adulthood. The thing to take away from GSAW is not that Atticus is a hateful bigot, but that Jean Louise, who had been blinded to her father’s true character by his seeming lack of error as she grew up, loves her father despite the fact that they now seem to have opposing views of the world.
So all in all, I recommend this novel if you’re a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird. If you’re not a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, shame on you and go read it again. If you’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird, BOO on you, go back to school, and get some culture. 🙂