Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Arrow Books, 2016
You will say anything that occurs to you, but what I can’t understand are the things that do occur to you. I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its way through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth. We were both born here, we went to the same schools, we were taught the same things. I wonder what you saw and heard.
Twenty years after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise Finch returns home to Maycomb, Alabama on a holiday from her New York job. At first it is a welcome respite; her father, Atticus, is getting older and struggling with arthritis but is still his usual self; her beau Hank is doing well training in her father’s law practice and she almost believes she may love him, and return to settle in Maycomb some time in the future. Even the antagonistic Aunt Alexandra is viewed with affection, for the most part.
But when Jean Louise sees Atticus and Hank at a citizen’s council meeting, essentially a meeting of white supremicists, the very foundations of her world are shattered. She becomes more and more aware of the growing racial tensions in her hometown, heartbreakingly apparent when she visits their old cook, Calpurnia.
Through a series of flashbacks to her childhood, and present events – particularly conversations with her uncle Jack – she works through what she perceives as the hypocrisy of the people she loves, and ultimately tries to find her own moral compass, or ‘watchman’. It’s a sort of coming-of-age novel, as Jean Louise grows up and learns to think for herself, without hero-worshipping her father anymore, and also attempts to find her place in Maycomb.
The content is heavy, yet the delivery is light, and often humorous, without being trite.
Jean Louise’s character is great. She’s still the wilful, headstrong, independent little girl, Scout. Her devil-may-care regard for what the stuffy Maycomb residents will think of her antics is a breath of fresh air. Throughout the novel, she toys with the idea of moving back to Maycomb and marrying Hank. By the end, she knows she won’t marry Hank, but there is a definite possibility she will return to Maycomb on a permanent basis.
Uncle Jack is an eccentric, likeable character, although the riddles he sets Jean Louise as tries to help her find her way had me scratching my head and I’m not sure I fully understand them yet.
It may not be a masterpiece, but I found it a compelling read. I don’t think it deserved to be panned as it was.
Fun fact: this was actually written prior to To Kill A Mockingbird. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, wasn’t quite feeling this manuscript, but saw definite potential – and so coaxed To Kill A Mockingbird out of Lee. Quite possibly one of the greatest editorial feats I’ve ever heard about. And people think they don’t need editors…