Let’s be clear. Go Set a Watchman is definitely written by Harper Lee — sharp humour, witty repartee, graceful phrasing, adult, educated vocabulary, and wonderful literary references — and nothing about it suggests that it could have been edited to create To Kill a Mockingbird — it is totally new.
It’s easy to see why Lee’s agent didn’t want to publish it in 1960. Even readers today are incensed at the idea that Atticus might be harbouring racist thoughts, which is, after all, what Jean Louise, age 26, thinks when she returns home for her 5th annual 2-week vacation. Read it through to the end to learn that Jean Louise needs to escape her childhood hero-worship of Atticus, think for herself, and to listen to people who don’t necessarily agree with her. Listen to what she hears at the courthouse during the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, to her argument with Atticus, to the one with Hank, and the one with her uncle. Find out what she learns about herself, her father, and her beliefs.
Jean Louise is still rather naïve despite the fact she’s been living and working in New York City and she has grown up, been brought up to be, is colour blind. Not in the physical sense, but when she looks at people who are a different colour than her (or language, or accent, or religion, or whatever makes them different) she doesn’t see it — she sees a person. But she’s been away from Maycomb for several years, hasn’t seen the changes, and hasn’t heard the arguments. In this book, Jean Louise is telling the story in the era it’s happening — the fifties. She has returned to find changes she doesn’t understand, and because these changes are voiced by three of the people she loves most in the whole wide world, she doesn’t know how to debate with them, doesn’t know how to listen to their viewpoints — all she sees is that everything she has counted on, believed in, and thought she understood no longer holds true.
We meet many of the characters introduced to us in Mockingbird. Aunt Alexandra still has the same class consciousness she had when Scout was nine, as well as the futile desire for her to become the embodiment of Southern womanhood. Atticus is still highly respected for his “integrity, humor, and patience . . . His private character was his public character”. He is older and has arthritis but is coping. He believes in the law but also in States’ rights. Her Uncle Jack still speaks to her in circles while trying to convey important social truths and to get her to carefully think through what she knows and how it all relates.
We see in flashbacks to her childhood persona of Scout, her teen years with its times of sadness, times of naïveté that made her totally desperate, and times of creativity that became exactly the worst possible moment only to turn at the last minute into gales of laughter and relief. We see times of support and tenderness during which Calpurnia played a huge role. We learn that Jem “dropped dead in his tracks” in the town square one day and when Jean Louise is standing in the square, she shudders with the realization that she’s standing in the very spot he died. We learn about the young man across the street, Hank Clinton, who was the same age as her brother Jem, his best friend, who spent his summers elsewhere but grew up to love her. He has become like a member of the family. Atticus has taken him under his wing from the time his mother died, and, in turn, Hank has become his legs and hands in the law firm and in his personal life. He also seems to have a clear handle on who Jean Louise is:
She was easy to look at and easy to be with most of the time, but she was in no sense of the word an easy person. . . She was a person who, when confronted with an easy way out, always took the hard way.
But he just might not have a complete handle on who she is and what she wants.
Some of the best writing in the novel is when Aunt Alex’s coffee club ladies (Jean Louise calls them ‘magpies’) come over. Jean Louise is picking up snatches of various conversations from the two rows of women whom she divides in her mind into little groups: the Newlyweds, the Diaper set, the Light Brigade, and the three Perennial Hopefuls. The separate thoughts run together:
I never in all my life . . . saw that marvelous picture . . . with old Mr. Healy . . . lying on the mantelpiece in front of my eyes the whole time . . . is it? Just about eleven, I think . . . she’ll wind up gettin’ a divorce. After all, the way he . . . rubbed my back every hour the whole ninth month . . . would have killed you. If you could have seen him . . . piddling every five minutes during the night. I put a stop . . . to everybody in our class except that horrid girl from Old Sarum. She won’t know the difference . . . between the lines, but you know exactly what he meant.
Hilarious juxtaposition! And there’s much more!
Watchman may not be what you expected, it may leave you unsettled, you may find it offensive where the innocent eyes that related Mockingbird told a similar story of a different time tucked into family memories of a 9-year-old, but it is the perfect companion to Mockingbird, it is wonderful writing, it is well worth reading, and it is most definitely, Harper Lee. * * * * *