I eagerly awaited the publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. I loved To Kill A Mockingbird and still consider it one of my favorite books. However, as the initial reviews came in, I became concerned. Atticus Finch a racist, say it ain’t so.
I took my time before I picked up Go Set a Watchman and just finished it this morning so this review may be a little clunky. My overall thoughts are these: Harper Lee is an amazing story teller,I am glad Go Set a Watchman was published and like Jean Louise, I feel confused and heartbroken by the fall of Atticus from god-like character, but relieved that their relationship seems to survive.
The first third of Go Set a Watchman brings us along with Jean Louise as she returns to Maycomb County for a visit from her home in New York. She is quickly enveloped in the warmth of her familiar relationships and in typical “Scout” fashion scandalizes the town and her Aunt by reportedly skinny dipping with Henry Clinton, her beau of sorts.
As I read, I thought “this is so tame and lovely” where is all this about Atticus being a racist? And then there it was, Atticus and Henry attending a meeting replete with racist language and ideas. Jean Louise leaves the meeting reeling and wanders through the town to the spot where her childhood home used to sit. It has been torn down and replaced by an ice cream shop mirroring how her own opinion of her father is being torn down. Her feelings are so overwhelming and she is so confused, she loses all track of time.
Jean Louise’s confusion soon leads to anger and she lashes out — at Henry, at her father, at her Aunt Alexandra. Her argument with Atticus is particularly fraught with emotion, making it difficult to read. It was hard to watch two people who so love each other so far apart on such an important issue and knowing that Atticus was tumbling off his pedestal with each word he said, for both Jean Louise and me. Race is the key issue and while there are weaknesses in Jean Louise’s logic, I had to remember when Harper Lee wrote this novel and applaud this remarkable female character challenging the men in her life in the southern culture that still has trouble allowing women to speak their mind.
Jean Louise asks Atticus, “Why in the name of God didn’t you marry again? Marry some nice dim-witted Southern lady who would have raised me right? Turned me into a simpering, mealy-mouthed magnolia type who bats her eyelashes and crosses her hands and lives for nothing but her lil’ole hus-band. At least I would have been blissful.”
Oh, how appropriate for Jean Louise to wish for something easier, without the burden of knowing what she knows, but at the same time being fully aware that she would not trade being quirky, opinionated Jean Louse Finch for anything.
Harper Lee touches on so many arguments that seem so ahead of her time that I had to admire her insight and intelligence. When Jean Louise and Henry argue, he tries to tell her about the privilege she has grown up in which Jean Louise cannot hear it. She cannot accept that she has somehow been given more opportunities due to her name and family reputation. If we took that a step further and examined white privilege, I am sure Jean Louise would have a lot of company in current society. We are all human, says Jean Louise, yet some humans are given more opportunities than others and those that have fought for every opportunity, like Henry, want to hold on like hell to the entree they feel they have earned.
In the end, I was upset by Atticus’ point of view, but understood it in context of the time and place where he lived and where Harper Lee wrote. While I don’t think Go Set a Watchman will become a classic like To Kill A Mockingbird, I think it needs to be respected and that Jean Louise should be cheered as an example of a strong, empowered female character and not reduced by the male characters in the novel.