Anyone who knows even the tiniest thing about me knows that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is, in my opinion, the best book ever written. In too many ways to even try counting, the themes contained within its pages have shaped me into the person I am today. The idea of “walking around in someone else’s skin” before passing judgement, as advised by the character Atticus Finch, is perhaps the most important theme of the book and is one that I carry with me every single day. It’ll come as no surprise, then, that I was beyond excited to hear that Lee would be releasing a second book, this one not so much a sequel to the original; but, rather, her original intent for the manuscript. I was giddy with excitement.
And then the early reviews came in, many calling the “New Atticus” a racist and a bigot. Before I even turned the first page, I was heartbroken. How could my hero — the ultimate champion of human rights — be a bigot and racist? I stopped reading the reviews after that. I neither wanted to believe it, nor could I wrap my brain around the idea. I refused to accept it. I would wait to read the book, then draw my own conclusions.
Last night, I turned the last page of Go Set a Watchman and, for the longest time, I sat there and tried to absorb everything I had read. To put it in plain terms, it’s exactly the kind of book I try to avoid: a book that makes me think and won’t let me stop thinking. When I read, I read for pleasure and to transplant myself into someone else’s world. I’m reading because I don’t want to think. But Harper Lee makes you think and, surprisingly, it was a good thing in this case.
Similar to its predecessor, Go Set a Watchman takes place in the fictional town of Maycomb, AL. At the center of the story is our beloved protagonist from To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise (Scout) Finch. She’s all grown up now. She’s in her early 20s, finished college, and living in New York. Yankee Territory! She comes home for a two-week vacation and her recent absence puts her beloved hometown in a different light than how she remembered it. While the people are the same, her world view has changed. What she never saw before now stares her in the face: racism. Like many of us, she never noticed it before because it was a part of her everyday life and all she ever knew; but now she has a broader world view and that world view has allowed her to understand that there are many different ways to see things.
Many of the characters from the original book make an appearance, with the exception of Dill (who only visited during the summer, anyway) and poor Jem. I’m not spoiling anything for you to tell you that the reader learns in the first few pages that Jem died an early death. Scout is on her own with only her longtime best friend and suitor, Henry Clinton, and a new and wonderful character: Dr. Jack Finch, brother to Atticus. Dr. Finch can only be described as the yin to Atticus’ yang. They are two sides to the same coin, both believing similar things but finding different ways to express themselves. On one side you have “Atticus the Untouchable.” He’s the perfect example of everything we hope to be. On the other side is Jack who, unlike Atticus, is completely “human.”
Calpurnia, Zeebo (the garbage collector and son to Calpurnia who made a brief appearance in the original book), and Aunt Alexandra make an appearance, with Aunt Alexandra and Zeebo playing prominent roles. We finally get to learn a little about their back stories. No Boo Radley. Sorry folks. In fact, very few of the actual elements that made To Kill a Mockingbird the story it became are present. Rather, the reader is given only brief references to the Tom Robinson trial that was at the center of the previous book. So this is not a retelling of a book you’ve already read. It’s a novel that stands entirely alone which means that you don’t really have to choose whether you like the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird or the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman. They’re both Atticus, but at different stages of life and fleshed out a little different to show the reader what makes him tick.
So let’s cut to the heart of the controversy. Early reviews shocked Harper Lee fans by calling Atticus a bigot and racist. On the surface, it may seem that way. When Scout returns home, she finds that her father sits on the board for the “Maycomb County Citizens’ Council” — a council with the singular purpose of keeping the African American residents of Maycomb “in their place,” so to speak. Obviously she’s shocked and this knowledge makes her physically ill. She was raised by Calpurnia, a black woman who stood in the stead of her mother. Her father had put his reputation on the line to defend Tom Robinson which, according to Scout, was the only time in Maycomb history that a black man had ever been found innocent on charges of raping a white woman. Was everything Atticus stood for and taught his children a lie? I think Scout’s feelings speak for all of us in the following passage:
The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.
[Lee, Harper (2015-07-14). Go Set a Watchman: A Novel (Kindle Locations 1276-1278). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.]
So sets the tone for the story. Atticus Finch, a demigod of sorts and certainly Scout’s hero (and mine as well) has been discovered to be something less than we all imagined him. This model of perfection has been discovered to have flaws, and now Scout — and the reader — has to decide how to feel about that.
Yes. The idea that Atticus would be part of anything that represents as its sole purpose the repression of any of God’s creatures is nothing but a betrayal. That is not the Atticus we came to know in To Kill a Mockingbird. With that said, I would caution readers of this review not to jump to conclusions. What you see isn’t always what you get, and I think that may be true in this case. Both Atticus and Henry Clinton are members of Macomb’s Citizens’ Council, but both for entirely different reasons. Is one’s reason better, more “respectable” or “forgiving” than the other? I’ve come to my own conclusion and you may or may not agree…and that’s the beauty of this book. You have to decide. You can’t walk away from this book without making a decision. Harper Lee won’t tell you what to think, and I won’t tell you what to believe. YOU have to make that decision for yourself; and I’ll tell you two things: there is no right answer, and you may struggle with the gray area between right and wrong and what you’ve always believed to be true. Or at least I did.
So my conclusion — the answer to the “big question” of whether I liked this book and would recommend it to others: Yes, I loved it. And yes, I would recommend it to others. Though, admittedly, it was a full eight chapters before I really got into the book, I will say that it was very well done and I liked it. Similar to To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee has left the reader a lot to think about. She’s given us no small number of issues to ponder. She asks you, this time, not to “walk around in someone else’s skin” as she did in To Kill a Mockingbird; but to ask yourself if everything you see is always what it appears to be. As my dad used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” The question I’m left with asking myself is this: How would I handle myself in this same situation?