A Peculiar Response to ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Tonight I finished Harper Lee’s newest novel, Go Set a Watchman. I had preordered it, so had it when it was first available, and yet it took a month for me to finish. I rarely set a book down for such long periods of time. I would go a few days, read a chapter or two, and set it down for another day or so.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Part of it was that I was hesitant, I didn’t want to face the truth. I had read a few reviews, heard a few people talking about Harper Lee’s newest novel, and none of it was favorable. In high school, To Kill a Mockingbird was the highlight of my English career. I can’t easily express the place it holds in my heart. And I’m not the only one. I’ve never met a person who read To Kill a Mockingbird and didn’t love it. Jem is the big brother we all have or want, Calpurnia reminds us of someone we know and love, Scout is endearing and irreverent, and little Dill is a playful scrap of a boy. The book follows the daily adventures and blasphemy of Scout, but the most striking character is her father, Atticus.

Atticus has long been held as a moral giant in American literature. It’s quite the high compliment to be compared to him – he is revealed in To Kill a Mockingbird as inherently good, just, and kind. He is unmoving in the face of adversity, compassionate, and brilliant. He is funny, but never at the expense of another. He is a champion of justice, of what is true and right. He is a moral compass for those around him. He is everything we want to be.

So when I read a review, my stomach dropped as the author revealed the heartbreaking truth of Atticus Finch – “Atticus is racist.

If you love To Kill a Mockingbird, it goes against everything you’ve come to believe in. It’s like feels like a punch in the gut and a kick in the teeth.

So yes, I was hesitant. I felt a bit pained with each page I turned. “Is it now?” I wondered.

My heart broke with Scout’s as she watches her father participate in a hateful discussion of the black community in their little Alabama town. I was just as angry as she was as Scout was as she saw the injustice. My heart dropped as she visited Cal and asked, “did you hate us?” only to receive a simple shake of the head and silence. I was confused and felt lost as Scout talked with her Uncle Jack. I had questions, and they weren’t easily answered.

But when I turned the last page, closed the cover, and smoothed the dust jacket back into place, I felt oddly satisfied, which I hadn’t expected.

Just as To Kill a Mockingbird was about more than a little girl watching the trial of a black man in a Southern town unfold and the effects it has on the community, Go Set a Watchman is about more than the shattered dreams of that grown-up little girl concerning her father.

It’s about hope, and about fighting for what’s right. It’s about not running away, and it’s about holding your head up, even when you stand alone. It’s about going home, disillusionment, heartbreak, and triumph. It’s about that kick in the teeth, the one-way ticket to the pavement. It’s about getting up, dusting yourself off, and getting on with it. It’s about an unbowed head in the face of adversity. It’s about morality, compassion, and justice.

What it’s not about is Atticus Finch being a racist. That’s a small detail in the entirety of the novel, and what I feel Harper Lee is really addressing (whether intentional or not).

It’s had me thinking all evening. I don’t think the release of Go Set a Watchman could be better timed. Look at the news. Read the paper. Scroll through your Facebook or Twitter feed. Listen to the radio, to the people you pass on the street, to the people eating lunch the next table over.

We’ve a lot to think about, and a lot to stand up for.

The crowning moment of Go Set a Watchman for me was when Scout’s Uncle Jack invites her to come home to Maycomb, after living in New York City and being away so long.

“Jean Louise, have you ever thought about coming home?”

“Home?”

“If you will refrain from echoing either the last clause or the last word of everything I say to you, I will be much obliged. Home. Yes, home.”

Jean Louise grinned. He was becoming Uncle Jack again. “No sir,” she said.

“Well, at the risk of overloading you, could you possibly give an undertaking to think about it? You may not know it, but there’s room for you down here.”

“You mean Atticus needs me?”

“Not altogether. I was thinking of Maycomb.”

“That’d be great, with me on one side and everybody else on the other. If life’s an endless flow of the kind of talk I heard this morning, I don’t think I’d exactly fit in.”

“That’s the one thing about here, the South, you’ve missed. You’d be amazed if you know how many people are on your side, if side‘s the right word. You’re no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you.”

She started the car and backed it down the driveway. She said, “What on earth could I do? I can’t fight them. There’s no fight in me any more…”

“I don’t mean by fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.”

Go Set a Watchman is about standing up for what’s right without the fuss, without the drama, without the agenda. It’s about fighting for each other, rather than against one another. It’s about not allowing others to make your decisions, take your voice, or speak for you. It’s about speaking for yourself, it’s about standing up for what you believe in. It’s okay to disagree, that’s part of life. But as Scout learns, it’s about being human and letting others be human too. It’s about being you, going to work, coming home, seeing your family and friends, and loving them, no matter what. It’s about growing up, seeing the world clearly, and deciding what you believe. And fighting for it.

Once again, Harper Lee taught this peculiar girl a powerful lesson, for which I am incredibly grateful.

(oh, and I still love Atticus for everything he was and is. And his brother Jack has a new fangirl as well)

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