William Heinemann, £18.99, ISBN 978-1-78-515028-9
Historical Fiction, 2015
Warning: while many of the plot points mentioned here have been brought up many, many times in various media outlets, they are still spoilers, so don’t read any further if you intend to read this book anytime soon.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a book that will always have a place in my heart, as it was the first book I read as a teenager that made me cry. People have accused the author of portraying a rather naïve kind of idealism in the story, but I don’t see it. If we are talking about that wretched movie with Gregory Peck, yes, that one can be a little over the top in portraying Atticus Finch as a saint of white people’s guilt. The book, however, is told from a young girl’s point of view, so Atticus to be the saint-like figure is to be expected. Even then, that character has cracks in his saintly veneer that make him human at times. Anyway, I love that book, and I try to read it again every now and then. Like Simon and Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones, and the rest, To Kill a Mockingbird was a part of those days that I would always cherish.
Reading Go Set a Watchman is like sitting down for tea with a very old friend that I have never seen or heard in a long time. It’s well known by now that this is actually the first draft of the book that eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, the draft that was rejected by Therese von Hohoff Torrey, who nonetheless saw some possibilities in this story and worked with Harper Lee over the following years to create that book. The tone and style of this book is recognizably by the same author of that book, however, so the first few pages can be a bittersweet experience. Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again. However it soon becomes pretty evident that my old friend has changed over the years, became a little more cynical and jaded. That is not a bad thing, of course, but it makes me think of our days together in more innocent and carefree times, and my heart aches a little for the two of us.
Cynical and jaded are about right, because this is a “sequel” only by association: its tone is very different from that of To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, Jean Louise Finch – who will always be Scout to me – is an adult who comes back to Maycomb County, Alabama for a short visit. She went to New York and became more hardened and cynical as a result, but at the same time, there is always a part of her that will always idealize her father. Also waiting in Maycomb is Henry “Hank” Clinton, her brother’s good friend who clearly wants them to be more than friends. She isn’t sure whether she wants to marry yet, as one of her greatest fears in life is to marry the wrong man and become miserable in the years after, but Hank has a way of softening her defenses. Her aunt and most of Maycomb County believe Hank to be the wrong guy for Jean Louise due to him coming from a broken home from the wrong side of the streets, but Jean Louise doesn’t share those old biddies’ opinion. She is a more democratic person, her ideals solidified by her childhood memories of Atticus defending and successfully acquitting a black man of rape.
Unfortunately, Jean Louise’s perceptions of Hank and her father would be shattered when she witnesses them attending a segregationist meeting and apparently agreeing with what she considers ill-informed and just plain wrong opinion on putting black people in their place. Yes, this is a spoiler, as it takes part quite late in the story, but since everyone has talked about it, loudly and openly, in papers and what not, I may as well join in and spoil away as well.
Yes, Atticus is a segregationist, a fact that apparently rocked the world who believed that Atticus Finch looked like Gregory Peck and molded single-handed a more liberal version of Andy Griffith land. I personally never subscribed to that belief – did I mention that I detest the movie? – so I find myself fascinated by this alternate interpretation of that man. In fact, I find that I actually like this version of that character, because he sincerely believes that black people can never be as advanced as white people, so it is only an act of kindness to ensure that those black folks stay where they belong – in the backwater regions where they are happier and safer in his eyes. I don’t agree with his beliefs at all, but he is a character that still manages to appear human and even vulnerable despite having these beliefs. There are many beautiful shades of grey in this story, and I am fascinated by every stroke.
Even Hank never comes off as wholly unsympathetic. As he tells Jean Louise, whether he agrees with the segregationists never matter – he has to conform, as all his life he will always be judged by his parents’ broken marriage and his less-than-stellar pedigree. Unlike Jean Louise, who can break the rules and still be accepted because she is and will always be a Finch, one of the most respected families in Maycomb County, he has no such privilege when he wants to make it in this town and be somebody. Do I like what he is doing? No. Do I see where he is coming from? Yes. He is right about Jean Louise – she has all the luxuries of bending or breaking the laws, while he has none due to circumstances beyond his control.
Jean Louise, on the other hand, is a classic idealist who wants to champion the downtrodden without realizing at the same time how her own privileges actually create a gulf between her and the people she claim to champion. Her bewilderment when she discovers the gulf separating her and the black community she believed up to that point that she was very close to – that scene is very painful to read. Jean Louise blames this on her father, but that’s okay. She’s smart. I think the whole experience will make her a wiser person in the future, once she gets used to the hurt. At the end of the day, the story isn’t about racism alone as much as it is about discrimination and segregation practices that divide and tear us all apart, regardless of our skin color.
And Go Set a Watchman never offers easy resolutions or convenient happy endings. Jean Louise has a very tough time accepting that her father is never what she believes him to be, and her behavior is both immature and understandable – in many ways, she is a lost and lonely girl who is looking for love but is scared of finding it, while trying to put on a brave face when deep inside she has been lost and adrift since her brother died and her friend Dill subsequently enlisted, went to fight in Europe, and remained there to this day. There is no clear-cut happy ending, just one that cuts at my heart even as I try to muster a brave smile just like Jean Louise. She’s hurt, confused, torn, conflicted. The author makes me feel the same way too.
It goes without saying, I’m sure, that this book is nowhere as magical or captivating as To Kill a Mockingbird. Without an editor who cares more about the craft than the money to be made from this book, the narrative often feels flat and even colorless, marred by often awkward transitions to flashbacks and back. But the author’s vivid descriptive style is still here, and sometimes I find myself thinking I can see, hear, and feel the things she is describing on the pages. Sometimes, not always, alas. At the same time, though, having read To Kill a Mockingbird probably helped me enjoy reading this book more, as a big part of my fascination with this story stems from how different – sometimes brutally so – Jean Louise, Aunt Alexandra, and Atticus are in both these stories. Far from destroying my good memories of To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman presents a stark, often painful, but always mesmerizing kind of deconstruction at work. I appreciate this book, and I appreciate the other book more now.