I just finished Harper Lee’s new (old?) novel, Go Set A a Watchman, published this summer. Though we’re first encountering it this summer, reports are that Lee finished this novel first, and after it was rejected, reworked the story into To Kill a Mockingbird, shelving Watchman for several years.
**I want to give a warning here: this review is FULL of spoilers. If you don’t want spoilers, stop now!**
I admit not being sure what to expect. I had heard a few mostly spoiler-free reviews from NPR and a few other sources, and knew that I was in for an older Scout, now going by Jean Louise, and a very different Atticus Finch.
While I feel there are some weaknesses in the text, and some which other reviewers have noticed as well (see some of the review links posted below), I found a lot to appreciate. The weaknesses include awkward flashbacks which serve the narrative but are not woven seamlessly into it. I also feel that the novel is perhaps too much in Jean Louise’s head, with little action in the present tense of the novel.
As some of you readers may know, I’m a high school English teacher, and have taught To Kill a Mockingbird, so part of me is asking the question: What conversations could I have with my students about this? The answer, I think, is several interesting ones, if they had read it. I think that while To Kill a Mockingbird, at least after its initial chapter, is fairly accessible to a variety of high school readers, part of this accessibility comes from two tense and dramatic plots with concrete action. While I, as an adult, can very much relate to how 26-year old Jean Louise feels confronting the adults who raised her, I’m not sure that as many high school students will have the patience to go along for the ride…I’ll be interested to see how conversations evolve around this book. I do think that, were I about to do another Mockingbird unit, I would definitely bring in excerpts of Watchman for the conversation, and I’d throw down the gauntlet of this challenging read, and I don’t doubt that some students would pick it up. Any thoughts, readers?
I was a bit taken aback by the change in plot around the Tom Robinson case, which other reviews have noted. While in Mockingbird, Tom is innocent and was only trying to extricate himself from Mayella Ewell’s advances after being kind to her, in Watchman, Jean Louise recalls that Atticus got this man acquitted on a rape charge by proving that intercourse with the 14-year-old white girl was consensual. Personally, I wished that this change hadn’t occurred, and I wanted harmony in these facts despite the well-done dissonance elsewhere in the novel; however, one could argue that this change functions to complicate our sympathies as much else is complicated in Watchman.
Jean Louise finds that her father, on whom she had always relied as her moral compass, is part of Maycomb’s Citizen’s Council, a group with a varied membership including corrupt and offensive people. Atticus speaks ill of the NAACP, and while Jean Louise feels a momentary relief that Atticus says he will be the lawyer for Calpurnia’s grandson, Atticus says it is to prevent the interference of the NAACP and black lawyers using this case to further their cause. Atticus tells Jean Louise that, in essence, black people are not ready to fully participate in society, and that he is part of a group that wants to prevent society from going downhill through their participation. This not an uncommon viewpoint in the South during this time period, and it infuriates Jean Louise, even as she struggles to respond to it, agreeing with large parts of it, even as she is disturbed.
Jean Louise finds everyone around her seemingly changed, especially Atticus and Calpurnia. While she (and we readers nostalgic for Mockingbird) may find past memories comforting, she is now, in her adulthood, tasked with coming to grips with the present. Uncle Jack becomes our font of wisdom, telling Jean Louise, “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” (Lee 269). In this phrase, we hear the echo of Atticus’s advice from Mockingbird, telling Scout to “learn a simple trick” about seeing things from others’ points of view. Once again, Watchman shows us that perspective and truly seeing are important, and it pushes us, along with Jean Louise, out of the comfortable Mockingbird nostalgia. As Uncle Jack points out, Atticus is a man, not a god, and Jean Louise must rebel against him, even “kill” him along with a part of herself, in order to “function as a separate entity” (so very Freudian!) (Lee 265). Such startling diction!
I could easily relate to this–as one goes out into the world and has one’s own experiences, and then returns home, one has to to confront the nostalgia-shaped images of our childhood, appreciate them for what they are, and try to see our families and ourselves more clearly. For Jean Louise, as for many of us, this is incredibly painful.
Things have changed in the South since Jean Louise was a child. Black people are gaining ground in their fight for equality, and this has changed Atticus, Calpurnia, and the relationships among many of Maycomb’s citizens. I thought that Jean Louise’s trip to see Calpurnia was one of the most interesting scenes in the novel. Your thoughts, readers? After the flashbacks in Watchman and reading Mockingbird, I longed with Jean Louise for warmth and recognition from Calpurnia, but not getting it leads to important realizations and growth for Jean Louise.
One of the other big lessons for Jean Louise, is that not only is Atticus not who she thought he was, and not only does he believe in racist principles she struggles with, she can still love him. Throughout the novel, Jean Louise has struggled to imagine her future. Will she marry Henry? Will she return to New York, which doesn’t feel like home, but which has views she’s more comfortable with? Will she settle in Maycomb, where she feels pressured to succumb to ideas of gender, race, and class that sicken her? Uncle Jack suggests, nearly at the novel’s close, that Jean Louise consider coming “home,” because Maycomb could use someone like her (Lee 271). He then tells her that, despite her instinct to run, she must go into town and pick up Atticus. Even though their consciences have split, they don’t need to be a divided family. He tells Jean Louise that “it takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days,” and perhaps we all need “a certain kind of maturity” to see the truth, to grow with it, and not to turn our backs on those who believe differently from us (Lee 273). Lee is trying to show us the real complexity that exists in both discovering what you believe and standing up for it, and reconciling having different viewpoints with those you love. In other words, you can be friends or family with someone, and vehemently disagree on the shape of the world. You can and should stand by your principles, but you don’t have to do that by clumsily cussing out your “enemy,” as Jean Louise does to Atticus (Lee 278).
This reminds me, not just of relationships with family and friends, but about recent comments about our Congress. In the past, senators and congressmen spent more time in Washington and more time socializing. Today, some lament that politicians of opposing views have little collegiate feeling, and that this makes it ever more difficult to come to the table for frank discussion on important issues.
I should take a moment to talk about Henry (Hank) Clinton, Jean Louise’s love interest in the novel. I was interested to see what Jean Louise in love looked like, but this story line is certainly secondary to Jean Louise’s revelations about Atticus. Henry helps Jean Louise to imagine what her future could look like in Maycomb if she is more traditional: married to Henry, agreeing with him and supporting him, giving Coffees like her Aunt Alexandra…but as a reader, I feel with Jean Louise that she could never really marry him.
I should also take a moment to mention Jem’s death, as Lee so startlingly does early on in the novel. We then return to think about Jem later on, but the first mention is brief! Though I missed Jem, and his initial absence, especially introduced so abruptly into the narrative, felt like plot device without much disguise, I can why Lee took him out of the story. Jean Louise’s struggle, to fit with the themes of this book, had to be her own, and couldn’t be shared with a sibling. (Though I can’t help wondering, what if? Would Jem have believed as Atticus did? Would the Jem that cried at injustice in Mockingbird have been just as set on it twenty years later?)
All in all, this novel made me think, and for that alone, I think it deserves praise. It has moments which feel beautiful and powerful. It further characterizes Jean Louise, Atticus, Uncle Jack, and Calpurnia, among others, and it characterizes the South at this time, which, as a Yankee, I always find interesting. I was intrigued by the descriptions of the South as full of individuals, all seeing differently, all fighting for their own causes and resistant to blanket actions. As I’ve explained, I felt like this is a very different, but still relatable, coming-of-age novel for an adult reader. I also felt that the way Watchman complicates the characters and the struggles around race and other issues feels right for a time in our country where some of these conversations are coming (quite justly) back to the forefront. Well worth a read, a think, and a conversation.
A Few Other Reviews:
Articles on Congress
“Washington Gridlock Linked to Social Funk” – CNN Politics
There was one I remembered from NPR, but I couldn’t find the particular article–this one deals with the issue I mention briefly.