Book Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

There is a lot of controversy over the seeming disparate views of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s two books.  I say that anybody who believes that the character of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the character of Atticus Finch in “Go Set a Watchman” must be two distinct individuals knows nothing about what it means to be a racist.  Not believing in the whole Atticus Finch is much the reason why racism can still be so prevalent today and yet so hidden from most people’s existence.  Humanity is more Atticus Finch than we would like to believe.  Humanity is also more Jean Louise Finch than we should be comfortable with.  We have all the racism of Atticus while at the same time we have all the naivety and blindness of Jean Louise when it comes to that racism.

“Go Set a Watchman” is an important book more for the subjects it brings up than for the content it contains.  It is basically a loss of innocence story.  Content-wise it is quite uneven.  The first half of the book contains much of the magic that made “To Kill a Mockingbird” one of America’s most beloved books.  An adult Jean Louise Finch comes back to Macomb County from New York after being away for an unspecified amount of time and spends much of the first half of the book reacquainting herself with family and friends and reminiscing about her youth.  This is all a setup for the second half where realities are revealed that makes Jean Louise question everything she holds sacred as her hero father is revealed to be all too human.  Jean Louise’s attempts to reconcile all of this new knowledge is much weaker.  Racism and the way it presents itself is a very difficult task to tackle and Harper Lee, in some ways, gets the nuance of the argument right.  In other ways, it seems a bit forced and lacking in depth.

Much of the problem, I think, is that Harper Lee might have had a very specific portion of the population in mind when she wrote the book.  That is, those people who believe that States’ Rights are being overrun by the U.S. government.  I say this because the whole argument starts with the premise that the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a horrible decision because it infringed on States’ Rights.  Both Jean Louise and Atticus agree on this point.  This is an argument that could only ring true for those individuals who still think the Civil War was about States’ Rights and not slavery.  This is such a blatantly false premise on which to start an argument that much of what follows can be toppled by the slighted poke against the Jenga tower of rationalization that Lee builds.  And yet, Lee is presenting the argument that is the foundation of a good portion of the population’s belief system.  So maybe Lee is talking to everybody.  She gets across the rationale of the South (for lack of a better word) to those who might not have been exposed to such thought; and she takes digs at racism in small ways that might be enough to shake the fragile foundations on which racism stands.  Yeah, I’m probably reading way too much into this now.

The book ends more on an inspiring tone than a hopeful one.  Yes, Jean Louise and Atticus make up and Atticus is proud of Jean Louise for taking her stand, but there is still this new gulf between them that is only bridged by Uncle Jack’s wise words: “The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise.  They don’t need you when they’re right.”  Words to live by as we confront those who believe in a “real America”.

And I will end with another quote from the book that rings quite true to me, again spoken by Uncle Jack: “Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”  May reason never end.