If you are a reader, and unless you have been living on Mars for the past couple of years, you know that Go Set a Watchman is a novel written by Harper Lee, best known for her amazing To Kill a Mockingbird. The controversy surrounding the book almost erases the value of this novel. While the publisher advertises it as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, the reality is that it was the first novel submitted by Harper Lee long before Mockingbird. The publisher to whom she submitted the novel apparently told her it wasn’t ready for prime time and sent her back to the drawing board.
In Go Set a Watchman, a grown-up Scout, who goes by her given name Jean Louise, returns home to Maycomb, AL, from her current residence in New York City, to visit her aging father Atticus. Losing her mother at a young age, she has long hero-worshiped her father, and has tried to model her life after him.
Not long after arriving in Maycomb, after she finds an anti-Negro pamphlet among his things, she follows her father and a young man who she may – or may not – marry named Hank to a citizen’s council meeting where the speaker – who is introduced by Atticus – is a blatant racist who calls for the crowd to stop the rise of Negroes. Jean Louise is horrified, and spends the rest of the novel trying to make sense of what she has learned about her father.
According to what I’ve read, the publishers to whom the author originally submitted the story advised her to work further on the story, telling her that the most interesting parts of the book are the flashback scenes in which Jean Louise remembers growing up in Maycomb. Thus, you have To Kill a Mockingbird.
I had to remind myself throughout the book that it was written BEFORE To Kill a Mockingbird, as Jean Marie’s memories include things that are actually integral to her subsequent classic. For example, she recalls Atticus handling the legal case for a black man wrongly and unjustly accused of raping a white girl. Sound familiar?
The book really is more a series of vignettes up to the point in which Jean Louise confronts her father. That scene, along with a couple scenes featuring Atticus’ brother, make up the bulk of the novel, and really are the only parts of the book that make one think.
It’s difficult to imagine the world in the south back in the 1950s and before. Being so far removed, both in time and geographically, it was a wake-up call to be reminded that the Civil War had taken place less than a hundred years previous to the days around the Dred Scott decision. It was fresh in many people’s memory. Another point made by Jean Louise’s uncle that is remarkable is that only about 5 percent of the southerners who lived and fought and died in the Civil War actually owned slaves. For them, it really was a fight for states’ rights.
Sure, it was confusing and disappointing to see Atticus, but all-in-all, it wasn’t shocking.
The book would create fabulous discussion for a book group. I’m certain it already has.