Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

24817626Fiction — Kindle edition. Harper, 2015. 288 pgs. Purchased.

At the age of twenty-six, Jean Louise Finch — the famous “Scout” from To Kill a Mockingbird — returns to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. Reunited with her her beloved father, Atticus Finch, and her Uncle Jack, Jean Louise is devastated to lear her father attends Citizens’ Council meetings where (male) community leaders deliver racist speeches against the black citizens of Maycomb. She thought her father stood for justice for all. Not the rights of whites above blacks.

“She knew little of the affairs of men, but she knew that her father’s presence at the table with a man who spewed filth from his mouth—did that make it less filthy? No. It condoned.”

Her devastation is furthered after the Finch family’s black maid, Calpurnia, treats Jean Louise politely but coldly when she comes to call. Jean Louise considered Calpurnia to be a mother figure to her; Calpurnia knows their races define their relationship.

Furthermore, Calpurnia’s grandson stands accused of killing a pedestrian while speeding, and Atticus has agreed to take the case. But only because he wants to stop the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from taking the case and coming to Maycomb.

He, like many of white people in Maycomb, view the advancement of blacks through Civil Rights legislature to be an intrusion of the United States federal government into the affairs of the state of Alabama. Or, so explains her Uncle Jack and her childhood sweetheart, Henry Clinton.

“You’ve no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you’ve been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. You said, in effect, ‘I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.’ You’d better take time for ’em, honey, otherwise you’ll never grow.”

When Jean Louise confronts her father, he argues that blacks are not ready for full Civil Rights and that they will take over the government and rule in effectively. Worse, in his mind, the Supreme Court’s decision to integrate schools was unconstitutional and irresponsible. He then challenges her examine her own position and whether or not she truly lives an integrated life in New York.

“Had she insight, could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind.”

The timeline of Lee’s novel suggests is could be read as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird; the 1950s setting, the absence of Scout’s brother, the age of the narrator. However, I tried my best to read the novel as a standalone novel. Or, at the very least, as the first draft it is supposed to be.

I understand why some readers have rejected this novel as incomplete, underdeveloped, or weaker in comparison to To Kill a Mockingbird. The flow between past and present isn’t particularly seamless and, like the final draft Lee published back in 1960, I felt the story was slow to start despite its shorter page count. And, as someone who ended up loving the final draft, the revelation the hero of the first novel, Atticus, is the worst kind of racist — the kind who is polite to a person of color to their face, but believes them to be inferior in private — is shocking.

“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”

Yet I also feel like the book does a far better job of confronting the uncomfortable truths of racism in America, particularly its examination of people like Scout. As a resident of New York, Scout believes she has risen above the racism of the South by relocating to the North. She condemns her father and Henry for attending the Citizens’ Council meetings and listening to racist rants.

“Let’s look at it this way,” said her father. “You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward,’ don’t you?” “Yes sir.” “You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?” “Yes sir.” “But you want them to have all its privileges?”

Yet she admits in a confrontation with her father that she doesn’t believe blacks are ready for self-governance. She continues to believe they are inferior to her, and she continues to live apart from them even as she says New York is far more integrated than Alabama. This revelation of Scout’s character ultimately lumps her into the same category as her father, Henry, and Uncle Jack and explains why the ending of this novel is fitting for the story.

This revelation of Scout’s character also explains why I am willing to overlook the problems of the novel’s structure and proclaim it to be a worthwhile read. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the message about racism is unsettling and packs the punch that To Kill a Mockingbird tried to soften for its readers.

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