Welcome to the first stop on the 2015 Go Set a Watchman blog tour. This novel is the follow-up to Harper Lee’s very highly regarded To Kill a Mockingbird. But it’s actually not that simple. Go Set a Watchman was Lee’s first draft, written in the mid-1950s. It wasn’t accepted ‘as is,’ and Lee was encouraged to develop the flashback scenes (more about them shortly) into another novel. That novel became To Kill a Mockingbird, and the rest, as they say, is history. Go Set a Watchman went missing for decades, not to be found until recently. So if you’ve never read either Harper Lee novel, you’re actually reading the novels in order if you start with Go Set a Watchman. Fortunately, it also works if you read To Kill a Mockingbird first, as the two stories are integrally related.
Go Set a Watchman begins with twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch’s return to her home town of Maycomb, Alabama. She’s been away for ten years; first to college, and then to New York City. At first, she’s delighted to be back. She’s missed her father Atticus and even her sometimes-annoying Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’ sister.
But – and this is one of the important themes in this novel – Jean Louise soon has to face what a lot of young adults face: disillusionment. She’s held her father up as a paragon of all things good ever since she was a child. He raised her and her brother Jem as a single parent, and she’s always looked to him for advice and good sense. She’s always been afraid to disappoint him, and been proud of his strong set of values. To him, everyone is equal before the law, and that conviction has stayed with his daughter.
One afternoon, she finds that Atticus is not the ‘tin god’ she made him out to be. Instead, he is a human being, flawed as all of us are. He is a successful White man living in the South; and he has the ideas and perceptions that a lot of White men in his situation have. That includes his beliefs about Blacks. He doesn’t believe in violence against Blacks; certainly he doesn’t hate them. But he is convinced they’re ‘not ready for equality.’ This discovery devastates Jean Louise, who has always remembered his watchwords:
‘Equal rights for all. Special privileges for none.’
She can’t reconcile his commitment to equality before the law with what she now sees of Atticus, and it tears her apart. This is especially difficult because of her own strong position against racism – a position she credits to her father.
Jean Louise is disillusioned in other ways, too. Maycomb was, and still is, a place of simple courtesies that she can’t find in New York. For instance, at one point, she goes to the grocery store, having forgotten to bring money. In Maycomb, it’s a simple matter of arranging with the grocer to have her father pay later that day. That sort of courtesy wouldn’t be extended in the more impersonal New York that she’s come to know.
That said though, she now sees Maycomb with different eyes. It’s also a place where racism is woven into everyday living. There is casual acceptance of stereotyped views of Blacks. And there is deep resentment of the NAACP and the Supreme Court, both of which are seen locally as meddlers in affairs not their own. Jean Louise, who is and always has been race-blind, can’t think that way, and can’t relate to people who do. Nor can she accept the sexism she sees. So she no longer feels a part of Maycomb. At the same time, she doesn’t feel she really belongs anywhere else.
And then there’s the rude lessons she learns about social class. As a child, Jean Louise never really thought about social class any more than she did about race. But as her friend Henry Clinton shows her, social class matters. He’s always been her best friend, and is now her father’s junior law partner. He also wants very much to marry her. But she can’t tolerate his willingness to go along with the local attitudes towards race instead of standing up to them. Here’s what he says about it:
‘I mean there are some things I simply can’t do that you can.’
‘And why am I such a privileged character?’
‘You’re a Finch.’
Henry goes on to explain that her family is given a pass because of their status. He, on the other hand, came from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, and continually has to prove himself.
As Jean Louise learns, the world is not as simple as it seemed to her child’s eyes. And as she learns just how complicated it all is, we see the complexity of life in a Southern town when all of the rules everyone has ever known are turned upside down. As her uncle puts it:
‘The South’s in its last agonizing birth pain. It’s bringing forth something new and I’m not sure I like it, but I won’t be here to see it. You will.’
Lee shows that serious challenges can’t be met with easy solutions.
By way of contrast to the sometimes incomprehensible world Jean Louise now sees around her, we also see life in Maycomb through her memories. Lee uses flashbacks to show how simple it all seemed to a young girl. Right was right, wrong was wrong, and trusted people like Atticus and the family cook Calpurnia were always there to show the way. Those flashbacks will be familiar to those who’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, as they later became the basis for it. But for those who haven’t, they provide a look at the way Jean Louise used to experience life. And there are times when those memories hurt quite a lot, since they’re so different to what she’s seeing now.
Is Go Set a Watchman a crime novel? Not in the sense that, say, an Agatha Christie novel is. There is a crime in it, but it’s not the main plot thread. It strikes close to home, though, as Calpurnia’s grandson Frank is arrested for running over and killing a White resident, old Mr. Healy. No-one thinks that it was premeditated or even deliberate. But Frank will need a good lawyer, and part of the plot concerns Atticus’ and Henry’s decision to take the case.
Go Set a Watchman is the story of an idealistic young woman’s discovery that life is much more complicated than she remembers it, and that people are not unidimensional. Jean Louise will have to rearrange her thinking and find a place for herself in ways she hadn’t imagined. The novel features a small Southern town that’s going to have to face the fact that the rules are changing, and the different reactions to that of the people who live there.
I hope you’ll follow the rest of the tour and visit the other stops. Tomorrow’s is the terrific Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, the blog home of Bill Selnes, whose great idea this tour was. I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say about Go Set a Watchman.
Here are the rest of the tour stops:
Friday 25 July – Clothes in Books
Thursday, 30 July – Coffee Rings Everywhere
Friday, 31 July – Crime Fiction Writer Sue Coletta