Harper, 288 pages, $27.99
“Go Set a Watchman” plays out against a background of Supreme Court-ordered desegregation, an angry call for states’ rights, and a burgeoning Civil Rights movement in the South. As has been so widely publicized, Atticus indeed is discovered to have been a KKK member in his distant past. He now (late 1950s) runs a citizen’s council in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, which objects to federal and NAACP intervention in their government.
Where “To Kill a Mockingbird” had a dramatic main story, with a wonderful rendering of Scout’s unconventional life anchoring it, “Go Set a Watchman has no focal point other than Jean Louise’s frustration and growing alienation from the town which birthed her. She has come from her home in New York to visit her father, uncle, aunt, and hopeful boyfriend, Hank. Although her visits have been yearly, this time she notices a definite change. There is no longer one Maycomb, but two. Where blacks and whites knew their “places” and, at least in the opinion of the whites, amicably co-existed, now there is suspicion and an underlying hostility. The saddest scene in the book is when Jean Louise visits her family’s old housekeeper, Calpurnia, a black woman who raised her from the age of two after Scout’s mother died suddenly. “Go Set a Watchman” is primarily about Jean Louise’s struggles to understand how her nearest and dearest can tolerate what is going on and whether everything she learned as a child is suddenly invalidated.
The rushed ending crams a lot of philosophizing about the end of a long-standing culture, no matter how odious its genesis. Yes, Atticus says the Negroes are “children” and still in need of guidance before they can be given full civil rights; how dare the federal government interfere. It’s a forgettable and regrettable mandatory tiding up of a storyline, such as it is.
What is still marvelous, however, is Harper Lee’s ability to evoke Scout’s childhood. In flashbacks, Scout is still irrepressible, incorrigible, exuberant, and good-hearted. We see her in adolescence, too — quite a poignant depiction and a real treat. This greatness outweighs the grown-up Jean Louise’s duller journey of re-awakening, although what makes that journey interesting is that it was written at the time it depicts; it isn’t a rendering with the precious foreknowledge of what will happen.
Remember as you are reading that this Atticus Finch is not the Atticus of TKAM. Harper Lee distilled what was best of her character and tethered him to a story that represented the intensity and volitility of the times. And that was genius.