Go Set a Watchman – literary fiction
Harper Lee – 1950’s/2015
Recommended for the wrong reasons
I won’t get into the controversy surrounding the shady circumstances in which the manuscript for the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird was allegedly found and how it came to be published. While all that is significant in terms of the publishing world, it has nothing to do with the actual story, assuming there actually is a story. Unfortunately, it seems like there isn’t one.
It’s about 16 years after the events of Mockingbird. Scout, more often called Jean Louise now and living in New York City, is coming home for her annual two-week vacation to her hometown of Maycomb, AL, where Atticus still lives but not without difficulty due to his advanced age. Missing from the home are her brother Jeremy (Jem), dead of the same heart condition that killed their mother before Mockingbird. Also missing is the since-retired housekeep Calpurnia, replaced by Aunt Alexandra, sister of Atticus.
The most significant new character is Henry “Hank” Clinton, a young attorney working for Atticus and Jean Louise’s childhood sweetheart who hopes to eventually be more than that. He seems like a nice enough guy, and it shouldn’t matter that he’s less masculine than his girlfriend. He spends a lot more time helping Atticus than he does with Jean Louise and will likely take over the practice eventually. It seems like a win-win, but I did say “seems” for a reason.
When we last visited Maycomb, the African-American population was trying not to get beat up. Now, with better jobs, rightful education, and more money, they’ve got cars and seem to be enjoying their lives. That part is not a win-win. It may be a fact when Hank remarks how the “blacks” have cars but no licenses or insurance, but there’s no mistaking the attitude with which he says it. Had this been a movie, script direction would have called for Jean Louise to give him a sideways glance with a furrowed brow.
Just as I was wondering “is anything going to happen, or is this whole book going to be Jean Louise’s flashbacks that include learning about sex, going to a school dance, and visiting a swimming hole?” something happens: Atticus and Hank go to a meeting. At first, it seems like a harmless meeting, a council of citizens working for the good people of Maycomb. But it’s not a “council of citizens.” It’s the local branch of the Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist group.
After the men leave for the meeting, Jean Louise finds a pamphlet titled “The Black Plague,” which features racist and disparaging propaganda about African Americans. This causes her to quietly enter the meeting, which happens to be in the same courthouse where the trial in Mockingbird took place.
As silently as possible she sneaks to the balcony, watches, listens, and cringes as Atticus introduces a well-known and outspoken leader in the council of racists. His subsequent speech disturbs her so greatly that she flees the courthouse and contemplates how she might get through the rest of her life without ever speaking to either her father or boyfriend.
And, unfortunately, that’s about all that happens. Sure, Jean Louise confronts both her father and Hank about their part in the Citizens’ Council. As you’d imagine, Jean Louise confronts Atticus. As you’d imagine, he can either admit or deny his part. As you’d imagine, she then reacts, and I wish there was more to say, but there isn’t.
It’s not a stretch to say the flashbacks to the days of Scout instead of Jean Louise add up to about 35% of the book. It felt as if all that was thrown in to put the reader in the mood they once held when reading Mockingbird. In fairness, it’s a mood that no other book has ever given me and perhaps you too.
The speech at the Citizens’ Council was a critical part of the story. However, stylistically, it was a bore. We never really “heard” any of the speaker’s words. It was told in short blurbs as heard by Jean Louise and retold to the reader. It was very much “telling” instead of “showing,” and it was greatly disappointing.
So, why would I recommend it for the wrong reasons? Because when a significant piece of literature is presented, it’s usually better to read it and have an educated opinion than to not read it at all, even if you’re disappointed about the time and effort given. Considering the impact of Mockingbird, this is one of those literary pieces, and you should read it.
I didn’t know until after having read Watchman that the title refers to Isaiah 21:6, in which the Lord warns to set a watchman to see and question who may approach and what their motives may be. I suppose it’s a measure of what Jean Louise is supposed to do when Atticus, the person she values more than anyone on the planet, might be less than she has imagined.
It’s been said that most writers, in fact most people, have one great book to give us. It’s also been said that, on the average, that’s all anyone has. Apparently even Harper Lee has been held to that one book thing, but it’s about one of the best there is.