Written by Katie Condo
Go Set a Watchman is the surprising sequel to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird. Though it has much of its beloved predecessor’s charm and style, there are still plenty of surprises in store for fans who thought they knew everything about Atticus Finch.
Scout, now simply Jean Louise, is making a trip home, reflecting on how different the South is from New York and how happy she is to be going back. She’s met at the station by her beau rather than her father, Atticus Finch, who couldn’t meet her because of his arthritis. This is our first indication that a good chunk of time has elapsed since we last visited the world of Mockingbird. Jean Louise is now a grown woman of 26 and expects things to be unchanged but is sadly mistaken.
As an avid fan of To Kill A Mockingbird I expected a return to Maycomb in all its unchanged glory. Instead, I discovered an Alabama town in the midst of a fight over civil rights and everything in turmoil. The Atticus Finch who boldly defended Tom Robinson, an innocent black man against mob rule, no longer exists. Or maybe he never did. In his place we find an aged Southern gentleman who isn’t ready for his way of life to change. He was raised in a society where black was always lower than white, and now African Americans have the audacity to seek full rights as American citizens. Atticus and the men like him aren’t ready to go down without a fight. This is where Jean Louise starts to have some trouble.
Throughout the novel Jean Louise proudly proclaims herself colorblind. After all, Atticus taught her to be so. But it isn’t long before she realizes her views are not only those of her father, a man she idolized, but they aren’t those of her beloved Maycomb. A large portion of the novel revolves around her struggle to see with new eyes the flaws of a place and time she always assumed to be perfect. Now she feels alone in the only place on earth where she ever truly felt at home. In dealing with the imperfections of home she finds out what she’s really made of.
Apart from the earth shaking idea that Atticus Finch isn’t the idealized civil rights proponent we thought he was, we also get a second shock : Scout’s brother Jem is dead. And Calpernia, who was practically mother to the two children, no longer works for the Finch household. These should be signs that something is amiss, leaving Jean Louise with no more guards against the loss of her innocence.
While all this internal struggle is going on we receive some flashbacks to when Scout was a child and the immortal Charles Baker Harris, aka Dill, makes a reappearance. These flashbacks to days when life was more innocent were my favorite parts of To Kill A Mockingbird and so as a fan of Lee’s work I was glad to see Scout return in all her glory.
In having this little glimpse back into her childhood it’s easy to see what Scout would’ve thought of Jean Louise. Her innocent blindness to the color of skin and thus their standing as human beings comes back in full measure.
As far as the actual writing in the novel is concerned it leaves nothing to be desired. Tones of both Jean Louise the elder and Scout run through the novel with pure consciousness and a certain grace that can only be ascribed to Harper Lee. It’s been noted that Watchmen was written before Mockingbird, yet never published until now, and there’s ample evidence for this here. There are complete sections, especially near the beginning, that under closer inspection appear to be taken directly from the final edition of To Kill A Mockingbird.
Although avid Mockingbird fans may be heartbroken to learn their heroic Atticus isn’t the picture of perfection they thought him, I’m here to assure you that with Go Set a Watchman Harper Lee has still got it. She brings off Southern charm just as easily as she did in To Kill A Mockingbird and Jean Louise manages to make out OK in the end, once again reminding us that some lessons can’t be taught without trial by fire.