The premise to Harper Lee’s second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” feels like the set-up of a satire or butt of a joke: Grown-up Scout comes home from New York to find that Atticus has joined the White Citizens Council.
It’s almost ridiculous. It’s like Harry and Ron start calling Hermione Mudblood in the Harry Potter series, Lizzie divorces Mr. Darcy and starts an affair with Wickham following the end of “Pride and Prejudice,” and Tom Joad from “The Grapes of Wrath” runs for Congress as a Republican.
Thanks to the multitude of reviews, editorial cartoons and various complaints from readers on social media, I knew about Atticus’ newfound (or possibly just well-hidden?) white supremacist attitudes before reading the new book. While Atticus’ seemingly bizarre character switch seems to be the main complaint most readers have, I was not bothered by it.
I was more perturbed by the sloppy writing and preachy resolution.
In 1960, Harper Lee, in her novel “To Kill A Mockingbird,” told us the story of a small-town, white lawyer in 1930s Alabama who defended a black man accused of raping a white woman. Since then, Atticus Finch has been the character who stands for quiet strength and inherent goodness, the bearer of America’s moral conscience. Learning that Atticus secretly harbored white supremacist attitudes is kind of like learning Charles Lindbergh was a Nazi.
At first you are shocked. Then you are not.
The issue then becomes whether you still want to hold up your childhood idol as the paragon of goodness.
That’s certainly the conflict Scout — Jean Louise, in the new book — faces. What does she do now? What does it mean about her if the man she adored her whole life supports men who say things like, “Go back to Africa?”
At some point everyone, even Jean Louise Finch, has to recognize that their childhood hero is not perfect and that right verses wrong is something a person has to decide on their own.
I appreciated that theme in “Go Set a Watchman.” I did not appreciate the sloppy writing. According to the publisher’s notes that came with my advanced copy, the novel was given only light copy editing. It needed much more. It took 101 pages to get to the main plot. I sometimes had a hard time separating the present action of the novel from the many flashbacks it contains, and parts of the writing were unclear.
Nowhere was the lack of clarity a bigger issue than during the resolution when Jean Louise’s uncle, Dr. Jack Finch, tries to explain why Atticus — and more broadly, the South — oppose desegregation.
“Uncle Jack” is a character that does not appear in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and a character he is. His meandering dialogue is full of obscure references to Victorian literature, a quirk that annoys Jean Louise as much as it does the reader, but you still cannot help but like him.
At least you cannot help but like him until he starts trying to explain the history of Reconstruction and why Southerners resent the NAACP and the U.S. Supreme Court and why Atticus joined the KKK when he was young. His metaphorical musings make him sound like a well-read Victorian Darwinist trying to be as wise as Tolkien’s Gandalf or J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore and failing.
If I had to characterize the book, I’d say it’s a coming-of-age story touting the theme of disillusionment. And I don’t mind being disillusioned by my childhood heroes. But other books and movies and TV shows have already done that and done it better. I understand why Lee’s publisher originally wanted to publish the story of Scout’s childhood rather than this one. That brings me to my final point.
Nothing we learn about Atticus in “Go Set a Watchman” changes what he did in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He still stands by a man no one else can or will protect. He still puts the truth before his personal biases. He still tries to get justice for an innocent man.
“Go Set a Watchman” does not negate anything about “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It simply takes the characters out of childhood myth and puts them into an adult’s reality.
Altman is a reporter for The Dispatch. Her email address is email@example.com.
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