I realise that there’s been a lack of books on my blog recently, so it’s time I fixed that by posting my review of one of the most anticipated novels of this year. Go Set A Watchman has littered the newspapers, lined bookshelves and generated discussion, both positive and negative, all over the globe.
I’ll be honest, I was incredibly worried when I first saw the headlines discolouring my beloved Atticus. As a lover of To Kill A Mockingbird, like many others, I didn’t want to read a book which changes my perceptions of characters I’ve had a long relationship with. So, I tried to read this book as a stand alone, to take it at face value and judge it as an individual piece of writing with some smiled character names.
The novel centres a 26 year old woman, Jean Louise Finch (Scout), who travels from New York to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her family. The beginning of the novel deals with her return journey and different recollections of incidents around the town as Jean Louise tries to reconnect with her Aunt Alexandra, her Uncle Jack and her father Atticus. Uncle Jack is still being portrayed as a retired doctor in this novel, and Atticus is still a lawyer, and a former state legislator. Henry ‘Hank’ Clinton is a key figure in this novel. Jean Louise reconnects with him as he is a childhood friend, and now works with her father. The controversy in the town now is the NAACP.
“Go away, the old buildings said. There is no place for you here. You are not wanted. We have secrets.”
On a return trip from home, Jean Louise and Henry are passed by a car of Negroes who seem to be traveling at a dangerously high speed. Henry informs her that negroes in the county have more money now for cars, but they fail to get licenses and insurance. Whisked away in a moment together, Jean Louise and Henry decide to take a swim. The next morning is spent dealing with the the mini scandal this causes. Aunt Alexandra is less than impressed! It is here we see flashbacks to Jean Louise’s youth, time spent with another friend, Charles Baker ‘Dill’ Harris, and her older brother Jem, who has since died of a heart condition that killed her mother. The loss of Jem in this novel is vital for what happens later. I admit, I missed that brotherly bond the two shared in TKAM. But, I appreciate how significant this loss is for the development of is novel.
As Jean Louise rests in her father’s chair, she finds a pamphlet entitled ‘The Black Plague’ among her father’s papers. With a growing sense of unease, she follows him to a Citizens’ Council meeting, where Atticus introduces Mr Grady O’Hanlon. He delivers a passionate yet aggressive racist speech. Being as she snuck in, Jean Louise watches in secret from a balcony. She’s horrified. As is the world reading this novel. Why is Atticus involved? In another flashback, Jean Louise sees back to her father defending a Negro against a rape allegation. She struggles to comprehend what she’s seen. She cannot forgive him and feels betrayed and flees the meeting.
“It happened so quickly that her stomach was still heaving. She breathed deeply to quieten it, but it would not stay still. She felt herself turning green with nausea, and she put her head down; try as she might she could not think, she only knew, and what she knew was this:
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.”
Jean Louise then has a dream about her old family maid, Calpurnia, who Jean sees as the closest thing to a mother she’s ever had. As Jean Louise has breakfast with her father, they learn that Calpurnia’s grandson killed a drunk pedestrian the previous evening, while speeding in his car. Atticus agrees to take his case in order to prevent the NAACP from becoming involved. (A glimmer into the TKAM Atticus we all know and love?) Jean Louise decides to visit Calpurnia. However, despite being treated politely, she was cold with her, leaving Jean Louise devastated.
The fact that Jean Louise saw her father at this meeting eats away at Jean Louise. She decides to ask her Uncle Jack about it, whilst lunching one day. He tries to explain to her that Atticus hasn’t become a racist or changed his views, but he is trying to slow federal government intervention into state politics. Her uncle lectures her on the complexity of history, race and politics in the South. He tries to get Jean Louise to come to a conclusion, at which at this stage, she struggles to comprehend.
“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.” “That’s odd, isn’t it?”
Jean Louise decides she needs to see her father, and heads towards the law office. Instead, she finds Henry. They go out for a coffee. Jean Louise, rather honestly, informs him that she doesn’t love him and will never marry him. Aunt Alexandra is also quite opinionated regarding Jean Louise’s choice of future husband. She screams at Henry with disgust about seeing him and her father at the council meeting. Henry tries to explain that sometimes people have to do things that they don’t really want to do. Jean Louise screams that she could never live or love a hypocrite, only to notice that Atticus is standing behind them, smiling.
Henry leaves and Jean Louise goes into her father’s office. Atticus argues that the Negroes of the South are not ready for full civil rights, and the Supreme Court’s decision was unconstitutional and irresponsible. Jean Louise tries to comprehend, and shows agreement that the South is not ready to be dully integrated, commenting on how the court was pushed into a corner by the NAACP and had to act. Jean Louise is confused and devastated by her father’s position, as they are the opposite to everything he has ever taught her.
Jean Louise flees the office and returns home to pack her things. As she is about to leave, her Uncle Jack comes home and tells her to think of all the things that have happened over the past two days and how she has processed them. When she claims she can no stand them, he tells her that it is bearable because she has become her own person now. He shows her that at one point she had fastened her conscience to her father’s, assuming that her answers would always be his answers. He informs her that Atticus was letting her break her idols so that he could reduce him to the status of a human being.
“What would Atticus do?” passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.”
Jean Louise returns to the office and makes a date with Henry for that evening. I enjoyed the development of their relationship throughout this novel. Jean Louise admits that Maycomb has taught him that’s that she’s missed out on being in New York. Then, she goes to apologise to her father, only to be told that he is proud of her. Atticus wanted his daughter to stand for what she thought was right. Jean Louise admits that she didn’t want her world disturbed, but in this process, was crushing the man who was trying to preserve it for her. Jean Louise admits her love for him and follows him to his car. She silently welcomes him to the human race, seeing him as just a man for the first time.
I really enjoyed reading this book. It’s what I would describe as a challenging book. It’s also journey through life as a young adult reflecting back onto their childhood. It challenges all our previous preconceptions and thoughts. The father/daughter relationship for me, is incredibly realistic. I’m also only a year younger than Jean Louise in this novel, so I can relate to her feelings well. Most girls have their fathers as an idol, I sure know I do. The family relationships are well developed and poignant. The loss of Jem meant that we see Jean Louise in her head more. The questioning aloud replaced by flashbacks and her own inner thoughts.
My heart ached for Jean Louise throughout this novel. It’s a process of life realising that times, people, places all change. The critics are divided about this novel, but I’m glad I read it. Will it replace TKAM? No. Does it ‘tarnish’ the reputation of TKAM? I don’t think so. Should Lee’s writing style be respected and praised? Yes, absolutely. This book is well worth a read. For me, it sits proudly on my bookshelf next to TKAM.
“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”
Big love x