Go Set A Watchman, reviewed by Ellie Scott
A Review of Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
reviewed by Ellie Scott
Harper Lee’s long-awaited novel Go Set a Watchman appeared on shelves three months ago and has been the subject of profuse media attention and speculation. Its mysterious provenance quickened the national appetite for debate, and now it seems the dust has settled. But much of what has been said is largely unfair. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to read Go Set a Watchman with an open mind. Consider it a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, which by all accounts, it was. Any writer will tell you that the first draft looks a lot different than the final draft, not only in writing style but also in plot and character development. GSAW is written unmistakably in Harper Lee’s voice, but in a less artistically honed voice, which is why her literary agent at the time told her to rewrite the book again and again, until the final masterpiece took shape as the novel we have loved for over 50 years. But this book too has its distinctive merits.
This second coming-of-age story is told from Scout’s perspective as a 26 year-old woman, now referred to as Jean Louise, as she revisits her southern hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. Many of the characters that appeared in “Mockingbird” appear here, though they’ve been altered by the passage of time. Calpurnia, the beloved black woman who raised Jean Louise and her brother Jem (who has subsequently died unexpectedly) is more dismissive now, and she wonders whether Cal ever loved them the way they loved her, or whether she was simply doing a job, raising white folks’ kids. Jean Louise has a serious suitor, Henry Clinton, who is Atticus’s law apprentice and right-hand man. She confronts the rigid stuffiness of Aunt Alexandra, who has taken the place of homemaker in Atticus’s life. GSAW addresses not only racial inequality in the south, but poverty inequality as well (Aunt Alexandra snubs Henry Clinton for being “low-born white trash”). Readers who love Scout will delight in her lengthy diatribes as she rages against circumstances in the South and advocates for change.
When Jean Louise discovers Atticus and Henry (the two remaining men in her life) attending a Citizen’s Council meeting—a more civilized version of a Clan meeting—she is horrified. Atticus disappoints the reader with his unexpected racist leanings, but not nearly as much as he devastates his daughter, who responds by vomiting and lying despondently in bed for days. Alongside Scout, the realization begins to dawn on the reader that Atticus is not the mythical father-figure, the defender of Truth and the pillar of Justice we once believed him to be. Though he may very well have defended a black man innocent of the heinous crime he is accused, Atticus is still a Southerner trapped in the rhetoric of a racially segregated deep South. But Jean Louise is not stuck there. She has been living in New York and can see the glaring inequality for what it is: something that needs fixing. In GSAW, Scout is forced to divorce her consciousness from her father’s. And haven’t we all had to do this? At some point we realize that our parents are not Gods, but fallible human beings, and we must carve our own paths into the future.
Atticus, in his day, inched along a slow progress in the South and provided his daughter a moral foundation from which to grow. By falling short of her expectations, he passes the torch and paves the way for her to become the beacon of Justice and the defender of Truth. This is how progress endures. Slowly, over many generations, as one righteous champion stands on the shoulders of others, and now we must continue the slow march of progress, because we have not yet arrived. I was hardly disappointed by this book. I was emboldened.
written by Ellie Scott