First let me say that I had no second thoughts about reading Harper Lee’s previously unpublished first novel, Go Set a Watchman. I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in high school. Mrs. Susan Peters did an outstanding job dissecting the novel’s theme and bringing out the finer points.
I’ve re-read Mockingbird many times as an adult, always recalling Mrs. Peters’ reminder of who narrates this story. That is an important point to remember when comparing Watchman to Mockingbird- both narrators are the same.
I want to recommend another book, The Mockingbird Next Door, (Marja Mills), which gives an excellent background on Nell Harper Lee’s life, especially her time in New York and her eventual return to her hometown. Most Lee fans know she modeled Maycomb after her own hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Lee’s sister Alice was partially the model for Atticus as was their father. Many of the details in Watchman (and Mockingbird) match up to details Alice and Nell Harper Lee shared in Next Door.
In Mockingbird, Jean Louise (Scout) Finch was a child in the 1930’s growing up in southern Alabama during the Depression with her widowed father Atticus and her older brother, Jem. Throughout the story, Lee (as narrator Scout), paints the picture of Atticus as the perfect father. He is patient, kind, just, fair, and spends quality time with his children. He is also a leader in the community, and takes on the unenviable task of defending a black man against a white woman’s claim of rape.
When we are children, most of us see our parents as demigods. They keep us safe, secure and protected from the “real world.”There comes a time when the world’s cruelty intrudes, and our parents cannot shield us from evil. It’s one of life’s lessons.
For Scout, the trial of Tom Robinson, and the fall out after the trial that directly impacted her world was the moment evil entered her life. She began to see Atticus as someone more than just her father. She saw him a person, still perfect, but unable to ultimately shield her from the reality of evil in the world.
Watchman begins with Jean Louise’s anticipation for home as she travels by train back to Maycomb, Alabama. The year is vague, but it is somewhere between the 1948 and Brown vs. Topeka in 1954.
Narrator Scout, now twenty-six years old and living in New York City, recalls a few childhood incidents, some quite hilarious. Scout also recalls the trial from Mockingbird. It’s important to remember that Watchman was written first, so the details of the trial are somewhat different. As Jean Louise settles back at home she struggles to figure out whether she, or is it her kin who has changed.
I’ve read many reviews this week. Here’s my take:
This is a wonderful stand alone novel. It lacks the lyrical prose Lee produces in Mockingbird, but Scout’s voice is loud and clear. Scout has grown up exactly as I would have anticipated- she’s still a no rules, risk taking straight talking girl who isn’t afraid to take a dare.
Reading this novel, one must be aware of the time period. The late 1950’s-1960’s was dominated by civil rights and ever increasing racial tensions in the South. Many White Southerners scorned the NAACP and its northern Blacks who were coming down “stirring up trouble.” They also scorned the federal government’s efforts to legislate their states.
The novel sets the stage for Scout’s awakening when she visits her family’s retired housekeeper, Calpurnia. A coffee reception given by Aunt Alexandra (who was a character in Mockingbird) gives Scout further pause. Sitting in on the Citizen’s Council the next afternoon brings all these tensions out into the open and Scout must come to terms with her discovery that Atticus is not the man, at least through her recent observations, she thought him to be.
If you didn’t grow up during this time period, it is difficult to understand the double standard that most white people lived by. I see Atticus, not as a closet racist, as many reviewers have said, but more a product of his times. I grew up surrounded by many of the same attitudes that Atticus discusses in Watchman. And I, like Scout was color-blind. I have always seen people, not races. I went to an integrated Catholic school, had three best friends who happened to be darker skinned than me, but lived in a city that enforced separate bathrooms and water fountains.
In Watchman, Scout confronts Atticus’ attitudes, just as she confronts a school mate and a childhood friend. All give different reasons for their prejudice. Lee does a fantastic job of laying out all of the arguments, and in the end Jean Louise ultimately accepts that she and her father do not share the same moral views on civil rights.
Many of the spoilers and sound bite reviews have made much of Atticus’ conflicting views on civil rights. Again, Atticus is a product of his time. A new character in Watchman, Atticus’ brother Jack, helps Jean Louise understand the history of southern culture and the rise of these views. Lee, through the character of Jack does not condone these views, gives readers a historical perspective.
I did not feel disillusioned reading this book, or with Atticus’ views. It’s fascinating that this book was written first. Atticus had been revealed as a flawed character before Mockingbird was written. It wasn’t just Scout who had placed Atticus on a pedestal- every person who read Mockingbird did. But we should know better. Every human ever placed on a pedestal by others is eventually toppled. Every human has a fatal flaw- even well written characters in a novel. And most of life’s issues are filled with shades of gray.
Coming to terms with life’s paradoxes is part of becoming an adult. It is part of our rite of passage- we one day discover our parents have clay feet, or we can remember when our own children figured it out.
Discovering that our parents have deep flaws in often painful, but as Uncle Jack points out to Scout, this discovery results in the birthing of a person as a separate self. At some point we must break away from our parents and stand on our own. We may do this physically when we leave the nest for college, but it may be many years before we truly declare our moral independence from our parents. This is the lesson Scout learns in Watchman.
I strongly recommend reading Go Set a Watchman for yourself. In light of today’s current events, I found Lee’s message timely and quite stirring.
* Further suggested reading:
– The Help, Kathryn Stockett- African Americans working as maids in Southern homes in the early 1960’s in Mississppi
– The Mockingbird Next Door, Maja Mill- Mills moves next door to Nell Harper and Alice Lee.
– To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee