Book Review: Go Set A Watchman
It’s been 50 plus years since we last had a chance to sit down and chat with Atticus Finch. If memory serves correctly, Atticus was the moral conscience for Harper Lee’s 1960 classic To Kill A Mockingbird. He was wise and kind; a man full of integrity, wit, and a spine so straight and firm that he chose to defend a black man charged with the rape of a white woman in a small Alabama town in the 1930s. Atticus was a hero character. He inspired morality and equality in the hearts of men and women throughout America during a tumultuous time when prejudice ran rampant and the very institutions established to protect the rights and freedoms of men were used to trample those who dared to challenge the white status quo.
Imagine the shock, nay the helpless fury, readers felt in Lee’s long-awaited follow-up to Go Set A Watchman (2015) when Atticus is revealed to be a racist who attends Klan meetings and belittles the “Negroe” race as infantile, complacent, and rightfully in their subservient place in the world. Now 72 and crippled with painful arthritis, Jean Louise finds her father aligning himself with the very people and worldviews that he once challenged following the recent Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Gone are his democratic ideals of racial equality. And instead of fighting to be his own man, he has allowed himself to be swept up into mindset of ignorance that we first met in “Mockingbird’s” Bob Ewell.
Throughout the novel Jean repeatedly comes face to face with the slow disillusionment of her idealized version of her father. The novel picks up the in the 1950s, 20 years after the conclusion of “Mockingbird”. Now a grown woman in her mid-twenties, Jean has returned to her childhood town from New York City for a visit. She is brazen and independent. Her choice of slacks over corsets and hoop skirts are an open affront to the civilized society of the South. She fights with her Aunt and challenges her quasi-fiancé on his enduring love for her and own bigoted views.
Despite the awkward third person narrative and somewhat clumsy writing one would expect from a novice writer, the “Watchman” is a perfect coming-of-age novel. Whereas “Mockingbird” embodied the core values of human decency and equality, the “Watchman” forces readers and its main protagonist to realize the ugliness of the world around them. Jean tries to salvage her father’s image by flashback to fond childhood memories with her brother Jem and friend Dill. But it is a fruitless endeavor.
When she comes confronts her uncle, Dr. Finch, over her father’s, his brother’s, behavior, reality is a cold, hard pill she is forced to swallow.
“It’s rather complicated,” he said, “and I don’t want you to fall into the tiresome error of being conceited about your complexes – you’d bore us for the rest of our lives with that, so we’ll keep away from it. Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience…He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being.”
Every man is flawed. Every man has his dark side. Welcome to the world Jean Louise. Time to fight for what you believe in.