Like so many people, I was excited to learn that an old “new” book by Harper Lee would come out this summer, followed the growing controversy between Lee’s family and publisher, and then, ultimately, hesitated to read the book upon learning that it portrayed an Atticus who had become a racist in his old age. I asked friends whether I should read the book, lest it tarnish my image of Atticus, the moral and upright lawyer who defended an innocent African American accused of rape in To Kill A Mockingbird.
But I couldn’t turn my back on the fact that this was a chance to peep inside Harper Lee’s complex mind; to see how she imagined the future of characters I loved so much. I still remember the furtive strains of the opening credits of the movie, back when they showed movies at 10:30 pm after the news, drawing me out of my bedroom just off the living room. I remember my mom didn’t have the heart to send me back to bed, as this was just such a good story. I also remember my surprise, and unfolding delight, when I read the book a few years later and realized that the story was so much more than the events portrayed in the movie. We grew up with Scout, wondered with, and loved Atticus because he was always fair, always right, and always there.
So, I’ve read Go Set a Watchman now, and I’m glad I did. Just as we saw Atticus the man through Scout’s eyes in her childhood, we experience her despair as she comes back to a Maycomb, and a family, that isn’t as she remembers it. She’s out of place, disgusted, and certain that she can never love these people again. But then some things happen, and, without giving away the ending, she begins to understand that Atticus is no longer an icon, but he is still her father, and he still helped her become the woman she is today.
As a novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is the superior book. Go Set a Watchman, so the story goes, was Lee’s first submission and it was too rough and unformed–the editors urged her to go back and develop the characters more. The seeds of To Kill a Mockinbird are all over the text–some paragraphs even made their way into the better book and other things that are just passing references become full-blown chapters in Mockingbird. Watchman is more of an internal dialogue which at the time might have served as both an accusation against and an apologia for Southern whites who opted out of the civil rights movement.
Now, I think it probably is best read as a different coming of age novel. There is that moment (not counting the teenage years), when you realize that you passionately, fundamentally disagree with your parents and it shakes you to the ground (mom, you are one of my loyal readers, don’t worry, it happened so long ago that it is ancient history). I can only say that Scout’s family anticipates that moment, encouraging Scout to embrace who she is.
Do they love her enough to change their position? To change their ways? Who knows. Believe me, there is some pretty awful, disappointing stuff in Go Set a Watchman. But this is a novel that can only be really powerful for those of us who love Scout, and Atticus, and Uncle Jack. It challenges you to ask how far you will go to understand the people you love in all their imperfections.
This is said best towards the end of the book, when Uncle Jack is encouraging Scout to move back to Maycomb, Alabama from her home In New York City. Scout retorts “Uncle Jack, I can’t live in a place that I don’t agree with and that doesn’t agree with me.” Eventually, Jack tells her, “The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they are right.”
And that is when I started to cry.