In the two decades since To Kill a Mockingbird everyone has aged. Lee is unsparing. She has not merely moved her characters into the 1950’s. Atticus, at 72, is still practising law but has ever increasing problems with rheumatoid arthritis. Some days he can neither tie his shoes nor button his shirt. Atticus has a major presence but not a major role in the book.
Jean Louise is courted by a young lawyer, four year her senior, Henry Clinton who is employed in her father’s office. Her formidable Aunt Alexandra, Zandra to her brothers, is dismissive of Henry as the offspring of “white trash”. Jean Louise immediately engages in verbal battle with Aunt Alexandra. The Scout who was always ready to let fists fly is still present in Jean Louise though words have replaced fists for fighting.
In more than the above reaction Jean Louise realizes she has changed as she looks at the young women she grew up with:
I can’t think of a thing to say to them. They talk incessantly about the things they do, and I don’t know how to do the things they do. If we married – if I married anyone from this town – these would be my friends and I couldn’t think of a thing to say to them. I would be Jean Louise the Silent.
Jean Louise does recognize and appreciate that Aunt Alexandra’s willingness to live with and care for Atticus lets Jean Louise stay in New York.
Her uncle, Dr. John Hale Finch, is a philosopher and eccentric who is the most engaging character in the book. In ordinary conversation he invokes references to his true love, Victorian literature.
Where much of the story is about how life in Alabama continues to be lived by the genteel class of whites, Jean Louise cannot close her eyes to relationships between whites and Negroes. She is no longer the Scout who was oblivious as a child to the indignities endured by Negroes in the American South.
The mid-1950’s are a time of great conflict and resentment in the American South. White Maycomb residents are bitter about the U.S. Supreme Court forcing desegregation of American schools.
Jean Louise remains genuinely colour blind as an adult. Many people, even 60 years later, cannot make that claim. She is frustrated when Henry is not colour blind. She is stunned when Atticus is not colour blind. Her father is not the man she idolized. What do you do when family become mortals?
Henry and Atticus try to explain. They live in Maycomb. How do you do business if you overtly challenge the community? Who will bring about change if not part of the Maycomb establishment?
I grew up in rural Saskatchewan in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Attitudes towards Canadian Indians were deeply set. I now cringe about how the good people with whom I grew up referred to Indians. No one protested the pass system which required Canadian Indians to get permission from the Indian agent to go off reserves before 1950.
Atticus is a mythic figure to Jean Louise and readers. I admit I struggled to deal with the image of Atticus as a man in Go Set a Watchman.
While the book is about Jean Louise Finch coming of age it is also about readers coming of age. We are forced to confront our own expectations.
Much as I sought to prepare myself that the characters would be different a generation later in their lives I found myself wishing Scout and Atticus were the people I had visualized while reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Such is the power of Lee’s characterization in To Kill a Mockingbird that it is hard to accept they are not the people I idealized.
My life has parallels with Atticus. I am now forty years into my life as a lawyer in rural North America and but a decade younger than Atticus. The book set me reflecting on what my sons, slightly older than Jean Louise, think of me as a father, as a man, as a lawyer.
In her theme of exploring entrenched views of segregation in the 1950’s South Lee has written a worthy successor rather than an imitation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Yet I think of So Set a Watchman as only a good book. The ending had the power and drama of the best of To Kill a Mockingbird. It pounded to a climax. The writing of the opening section does not flow with the style and ease of To Kill a Mockingbird. Overall the writing was too often awkward. The plot lines did not always come together. I felt it a book Lee had not completed. I wished she had worked more upon Go Set a Watchman. It could have been another special book.
I closed Go Set a Watchman glad that I had read the book. It made me contemplate how we live amidst the biases about us. How easily do we co-exist with the watchman of our conscience?
****The Go Set a Watchman blogger tour, which I am co-hosting with Margot Kinberg at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, began yesterday with a fine analysis by Margot. Please read her post if you have not read it. The tour continues as follows:
Saturday, 25 July – Tomorrow the tour goes to the UK at Clothes in Books.
Thursday, 30 July – The tour moves along to India at Coffee Rings Everywhere.
Friday, 31 July – The tour ends in the USA with a stop at Sue Coletta’s Crime Writer blog.