Editor’s note: This review contains major spoilers for “Go Set a Watchman.”
People often conjure heroes when they need a role model to look up to. When those facades inevitably fade away in the cold light of reality, people begin to see their idols for who they really are. The fallout can leave disciples in a confused and angry state.
In Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” the sequel to the ground breaking classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Jean Louise “Scout” Finch has to learn the hard way that appearances can be deceiving. Readers will sympathize with her sense of dread when she slowly begins to realize even the most polished individuals can harbor a dark side.
The novel begins with an adult Jean Louise (who has given up her childhood nickname of Scout that most readers will remember her by) visiting her hometown of Maycomb, Ala. after an extended stay in New York City. Upon her return to her old stomping grounds, she finds that much has stayed the same. Her father, Atticus, is still the county’s most respected lawyer, her Aunt Alexandria is as abrasive to her niece as she was in “Mockingbird” and the city still seems to operate in its own secluded bubble.
Despite the similarities to the Maycomb of the past, readers will find that much has transformed since Scout’s adventures in her youth. Jean Louise is now seriously involved with Henry Clinton, a childhood friend who now works at her father’s law firm as his right-hand man. Atticus, on the other hand, has aged dramatically since his last appearance. Arthritis now plagues his body and he finds it difficult to even dress himself at times. Calpurnia, once the trusted house maid for the Finches, has retired and moved back in with her family on the outskirts of town where the rest of the black citizens of Maycomb reside.
To top off all of these changes, Jem, Jean Louise’s brother, is dead. While walking in front of his father’s office one day, he is killed by a heart attack. Although it may look the same, Jean Louise’s home is not what it once was.
As she navigates through the perplex web of Southern hospitality and the odd formalities of adult life, readers are treated to Jean Louise’s memories of childhood as she reminisces about a simpler time. She and Henry seriously contemplate marriage and Jean Louise finds peace with her family. That all changes when she finds out Atticus and Henry aren’t the people she thinks they are.
She discovers that the two have been involved with a group that aims to maintain segregation in the South. She watches two of the most important men in her life sitting alongside a speaker who spouts the genetic inferiority of minorities as fact. Readers will share her shock, confusion and gloom when she sees her beloved Atticus collaborating with these racists.
In a fury, Jean Louise prepares to leave Maycomb forever. The man who told her that you could only judge a man by standing in his shoes is now effectively dead to her and her suitor has been slain along with him. Forcefully ripped from blissful ignorance, Jean Louise is born again in the harsh world of honesty.
Seeing a character like Atticus revealed to be a racist is like seeing Dumbledore turn out to be a Death Eater; it doesn’t make sense. Maybe that’s the point of the novel. The truth isn’t easy to digest, but it’s essential to accept it to cure society’s ills.
Nobody wants to hear stories of their parents’ drunken escapades in college or learn that their favorite athlete has been taking steroids. It humanizes them and that’s the last thing you want in a hero. How super would Superman be if he had flaws?
When Jean Louise learns of Atticus’s racism, her first instinct is to run. After thinking it over, she comes back like the prodigal son and begins life anew with the strength that comes with accepting people, flaws and all. She realizes that only she can save herself from the racism that surrounds her.
It’s ironic that this novel comes out at a time when so many of Maycomb’s struggles parallel those in our modern society. The shadows of Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston hang over our nation despite the huge advances in racial relations made over the past several decades. Half a century after “Watchman” takes place, people are once again entertaining the idea that black and white can’t live together in harmony.
As a nation, we turned to people like Barack Obama to heal our racial wounds. But soon we learned even he had limits. As 2016 approaches with another presidential race, a new champion will once again be coronated and charged with creating an American utopia. If “Watchman” is to be believed, no matter who is elected, there will be no one to cleanse us of our sins; salvation will only come from within.
“Go Set A Watchman” isn’t the sequel to “Mockingbird” people will be expecting. Gone are the fairy tales of flawless angels that champion equality and change the world for the better. Instead, the novel confronts the ugly existence of buried prejudice that can lurk within even the best men and women. “Watchman” isn’t the novel people want to read, but it’s the one they need to read.
4 out of 5 stars