Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee – by George Somasundaram
Harper Lee was the author of the classic of modern American literature “To kill a Mockingbird”. It was released in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize.
“Go set a Watchman” was actually Harper Lee’s first manuscript, initially discarded but re-discovered later in a safety deposit box. Published in 2015, it is set twenty years past the ‘Mockingbird’ era and features many of the iconic original characters. The title is derived from a Biblical verse
Located in Maycomb, Alabama, twenty six year old Jean Louise Finch returns to her hometown to visit her ageing father Atticus. Readers may remember Atticus as the defending lawyer in ‘Mockingbird’. Set against the backdrop of political turmoil and civil rights tensions that were transforming the Deep South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about the close-knit family, the town and people dear to her. Memories from her childhood flood back and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. It captures a young woman and a world in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past – a journey that can be guided only by one’s own conscience.
Jean Louise discovers that her beloved father Atticus who defended a Black man in ‘Mockingbird’, is now a segregationist. She is confused and devastated by her father’s positions as they are contrary to everything he had taught her. Her uncle Jack, a retired doctor and one-time mentor is now more of a rationalist believing that the Blacks of the South are not ready for full civil rights. Her childhood sweetheart Henry, who now works for Atticus, although claiming that he is not a racist, attends meetings dominated by White supremacists. She visits her former Black maid Calpurnia and is treated politely but coldly. All these acquaintances have changed during the period Jean Louise was away in New York. She is disappointed and furious wanting to pack her bags to leave town. Her uncle reminds her that she had fastened her conscience to her father’s, assuming that her answers would always be her father’s answers. However she is surprised when Atticus tells her how proud he is of her and was delighted that she stood for what she thought was right. She reflects that she did not want her world disturbed but that she tried to crush the man who was trying to preserve it for her. On departing, a burden is lifted when she tells him she loves him very much while silently welcoming him to the human race.
‘Watchman’ in contrast to ‘Mockingbird’ explores the alienation of a native daughter who moved from a small town to a City. While the City provided the opportunity to expand her thinking, the home town retained its racial and class prejudice, the people’s enmity and hypocrisy and small-mindedness. ‘Watchman’ is a novel of humanity, wisdom, passion and humour – wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times.
George Somasundaram is a resident of Brisbane