Like any good book report/discussion, this one discusses the whole book. If you haven’t read it yet and don’t want to be spoiled…read no further.
Like so many of us, I first read “To Kill a Mockingbird” (henceforth TKaM) in middle school. At the time, I really did not get what was going on in that book, and so it took reading it again in as a college graduate to really figure out what was going on and what it all meant. It was the second time around that I picked up on nuance, and bravery of character that I hadn’t quite seen yet. Maybe they make kids read the book when they’re young and impressionable because those children still see the world through Scout’s eyes.
When Harper Lee’s “lost” novel was announced for publication last year I wondered, along with everyone else. Why had this book just been found? Was Ms. Lee really able to give her consent to have it published, despite declining to do so for years? (Alabama officials later said yes) And after the book was published, I remember seeing everyone freaking out because it turns out that Atticus Finch – white savior of the modern South – is deeply racist. And it was this controversy that made me think more seriously that I needed to read the book. Because while I remember Atticus fondly from the books, the kind of stories that tear down our heroes are the kind that we need to read more of.
The story of “Go Set A Watchman” is quite simple – Jean Louise Finch (our young Scout from TKaM) is a grown up woman who lives in New York…doing I’m not quite sure what. But she has a job, and she loves the city while she’s there. She has taken a trip home to see her Father, and her sometime-boyfriend Hank. During her time home, she discovers that her father and Hank – prominent lawyers in town – have both joined a citizens group dedicated to bringing about order between blacks and whites in their small Alabama town. Not unlike a “kindler gentler” version of the KKK…if not the Klan itself. Jean Louise is horrified, and immediately wants to leave. She confronts her father about it, and they discuss their sides…and that’s it.
I didn’t sell you on the plot, did I? Well, I think the plot is not really the point of this book. There’s a lot of nostalgia for people who loved TKaM, and wanted to see more of that. Quite a chunk of the story gives us looks back into a similar or immediately following time when the child Scout is becoming Jean Louise the young woman. But once we get into what happens in this adult world, it’s very blunt. Jean Louise follows her father to a community meeting and discovers that it all white men listening to racist speeches and talk. Discovering the way that things are now sends Jean Louise into a spiral – trying to cling to the way that things were in her youth. She reaches out to her old family housekeeper Calpurnia (a black woman) when there is a tragedy in Calpurnia’s family, but Calpurnia spurns her and treats her as a stranger, because this is the way between blacks and whites now – even those who were close as family. Jean Louise resolves to go home to New York, and before she can leave is forced to discuss things with Atticus.
This discussion takes up a great deal of the book – nearly 10% of the total book time (if I’m remembering correctly) spent on this one important conversation. And it’s heartbreaking. Yes, the fact that Atticus Finch is now a sort of benevolent, condescending racist is terrible. But the worst part is the feeling that our memories of our parents and our childhood have been clouded over. That we are willing to overlook faults, and potential shortcomings. And eventually, as adults, we are confronted with the understanding that perhaps our parents do not know best – that those people we may have loved and respected most in the world are in an older generation with values different than our own.
And I think that’s really the point of the book. We cannot really go home again – at some point we will see how things really are in the world, and we will probably disagree with our parents on fundamental, core-shaking issues. Whatever idealized version of the past is not how things will always be. And that it’s a normal thing to have ideas that are fundamentally different from your parents, because no culture will ever make progress if everyone agrees completely with the generation that came before.
So – is it a good book? Yes, I think so. When the controversy about Atticus dies down in the future, I think it will be seen as an amazing book about that last stage of growing up when you have been close to your family. At some point we all must pull away from our families and move on with our own lives and ideas. Will it be read by middle schoolers the way that TKaM is today? No. I think this is definitely more of a book that will speak to the experiences of those who are in college and just out of school. If you’re still in a naturally defiant period of life as the teenage years are, it’s hard to know the real feeling of nostalgia and disappointment entangling together. Is this a book I would recommend to others? Yes, definitely – but with the warning that those who have a starry-eyed version of Atticus Finch should be prepared to see the world as it is and as it would have been in the South of the 1950s. But to see the world as it is prepares us better for striving towards making the world as it should be.
PS – if you have the opportunity to listen to the audio version as narrated by Reese Witherspoon, I highly recommend it. She does a lovely job of embodying our forthright Jean Louise, and lending sympathy to all other characters in a truly dramatic way.
Details: “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee, published 2015 by HarperCollins.