Ever wonder what happened to Jean Louise Finch aka Scout when she grew up? Well wonder no more. It’s rare to witness a literary phenomenon, but Harper Lee’s long wondered about sequel to her iconic classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, is one such “once in a life-time” event. In Go Set a Watchman, Scout is a young woman living in New York who comes home to the fictional Maycomb County, Alabama and witnesses nothing short of the shattering of her idol and father, Atticus Finch, when she catches him, along with her wanna-be fiancé, Henry, at an unseemly town hall meeting full of racist rhetoric.
“Oh dear me, yes. The novel must tell a story.” – page 188
By now the story behind the story has almost over-taken the novel. Originally written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but returned to Lee by the publisher requesting she flesh out the childhood flashbacks of her protagonist and make something of that instead, Go Set a Watchman is both a prequel and a sequel (or a prequel sequel if you will). When you read those flashback scenes, it’s easy to see why the publisher was more tickled by those, and perhaps the tone of the rest of the novel was too volatile at the time. Lee has quite the gift for gab, and in her dialogue, which is both colorful and occasionally pedantic (Scout’s voice is clearly a vehicle for some impassioned politic views) she has crafted a book that is almost all talk. Her dialogue perfectly captures place, time and feelings…it’s as if she has transported us back to the Deep South in the 1950’s at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement that would define a generation (a nifty almost post-modern trick as when she wrote this – this was now).
At times, it reads more like a play – and I can picture actors up on stage reading their lines with great vigor and theatrics. If there is to be a film version, Go Set a Watchman will bequeath a plethora of juicy Oscar roles for some lucky thespians. One can’t help but wonder how someone like a Sidney Lumet – sadly now deceased – would’ve handled the material. It could’ve been a contemporary companion piece to his masterful Twelve Angry Men as here we have One Angry Woman against the entire Deep South.
The novel’s dialogue is rife with literary and religious allusions, courtesy of Scout’s educated upbringing and her eccentric uncle. Scout is our eyes and ears (as well as our heart) as we are presented with the harsh truths of the Deep South, while her uncle is our Chesire cat-smiling guide. There’s of course the titular biblical allusion (“Go set a Watchman and have him report what he sees”) where the gender roles are flipped and Scout is indeed our Watchman (and her name is even more precious), but her uncle also alludes to “…to the dark tower came” where the dark tower can either be seen as Atticus or the Deep South or both.
“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common; they both begin where reason ends.” – pages 270-271
After writhing with vitriol, our story’s end feels a little too pat. Did her uncle convince Scout to stay as the South needed people like her more than it ever had before? She seems all to easy to forgive her father, though in finding the separation in their once unified conscience, she has finally become an adult. The novel does feel incomplete and makes one wonder had Harper Lee intended to continue the tales of Scout? Apart from being an engaging time capsule, Go Set a Watchman is just as much a coming-of-age story as was its predecessor. Were we to always visit with Scout at pivotal points in her life – childhood, young adulthood – maybe middle-age and old-age? We might never know, which makes this rare re-visit all the more rewarding and worth treasuring, like Atticus, warts and all.
Written by David H. Schleicher