This book review is a gentle nod towards my fellow students who fell in love with To Kill a Mockingbird at school age.

Harper Lee’s second novel – Go Set a Watchman – was released last week following a large amount of anticipation and excitement. The 88-year-old author’s second book was announced in February this year, 55 years after her first Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. In reaction to this my newsfeed was filled with excitement from previous classmates declaring their love for the book during GCSE English and their eagerness at the prospect of a follow-up novel. It was the kind of hype which could quite frankly rival that of a new Harry Potter book.

A summary: Without spoilers

The title of the novel comes from a passage in Isaiah 21:6 – ‘For thus has the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman, Let him declare what he sees”‘. The interpretation of the passage appears to be that each person ought to use their own conscience – their own personal watchman – to establish for themselves  what is good and what is evil.

Now into her 20s, the book begins with Scout’s (Jean-Louise’s) journey from her life in New York back to her hometown of Maycomb, in order to visit Atticus, her ageing father. The third-person narrative follows her adjustment to the changes in the area and the people of her hometown, noting how racism in the South has not remained stagnant but only deepened further into the society around her.

Although the voice and perspective has matured since Mockingbird, Watchman remains to be told very much from the point of view of Scout. While the magic of young eyes seems to vanish in this sequel, the story does give a couple of anecdotes from Scout’s childhood and teenage years which include Jem (her brother) and Dill (neighbour and friend). Furthermore, Scout’s sense of humour is not entirely lost. The story is still pleasantly peppered with her quips, snide comments and punchy comebacks.

Many of the original characters do get at least a nod; however you might be more than a little disappointed at how infrequently your favourite characters might appear in the novel.

Loss of Innocence

The underlying lessons Scout learnt in Mockingbird are continued to an even greater extent in Go Set a Watchman, in that there is a drastic loss of innocence. Watchman has all the growing pains and realisations many people experience by their 20s: Realising your idols are fallible, experiencing loss, standing up for what you believe in despite opposition etc.

There is no doubt that Lee did not intend to pay lip service to the fans of Mockingbird. The adult characters in Watchman are even more fallible and realistic. Watchman makes no offer to revisit your childhood sentiments which stirred in you when reading Mockingbird. However, Lee’s aim was not merely to create a story you would read curled up by the fire. Rather, the focal point of the story in the first place was to paint the stark and harsh reality of the problem of racism.

Spoilers: A drastic change of character

Much to the disappointment of the reader, it appears that Atticus succumbs to ‘Maycomb’s usual disease’, of which he was so protective of his own children catching. Scout comes home to witness her father and uncle attending a ‘citizens’ council meeting’ with white supremacists, all the while reading racist literature and making comments of a similar nature. The very sight of this causes her to leave the building and gag.

While a few early reviews suggested that this – in many ways – makes Watchman an inferior book, it has rightly been pointed out that many white allies have demonstrated hypocrisy during various points in history. Thomas Jefferson – a consistent opponent of slavery – wrote that ‘the negro’ was inferior and even animalistic. Abraham Lincoln – described as ‘the great emancipator’ due to his role in the abolition of the slave trade – stated, ‘if I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it’.

Lee uses the shortcomings of Atticus’ character to invoke a guttural feeling of anger and disappointment; and she does this for a good reason. Harper Lee uses the change in the nature and character of Atticus to test our own watchman.

‘You would be amazed if you knew how many people would be on your side … The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you’.

The final plea from Uncle Jack Finch was for Scout to listen to her own watchman. To know she is not the only one who holds this view, to be continually aware of how deeply-rooted racism truly is in the South and be prepared to remain upstanding in the midst of it.

This invitation extends to the reader also. What does your watchman say about Ferguson? Or the Charleston church shooting? Let us not be so caught up in our love for the story to forget what the book truly centres around. The story is not simply referring to a historical view of racism dedicated to the audience of the 1950s, but is equally relevant to current events today. Our reaction to Atticus’ change of character should invoke the anger of our own watchman when our heroes eventually disappoint us. But this watchman must also give us the courage to continue moving forwards when they do.

 

Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/opinion/the-real-thomas-jefferson.html