After all the hype and speculation about this “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird, I decided not to read it neither a sequel nor prequel, but as a standalone novel by a debut author. This freed me from making comparisons or having any expectations confirmed or crushed by the work.
This book is very much a literary piece, taking place over only a few days into Jean Louise’s (Scout’s) annual two-week visit to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. Currently twenty-six years old, she lives in New York City and returns each summer for two weeks to visit her family. Her father, Atticus, is getting old and has severe arthritis. His sister Alexandra lives with him and keeps house. Calpurnia, the African-American woman who had been the housekeeper when Scout was growing up had long ago retired. Atticus’s eccentric brother, a physician, also lives in Maycomb and has spent so much time reading Victorian literature, he appears to have lost touch with reality and what century he lives in. She also has a love interest, Henry, her father’s young law partner, who seems to be waiting for her to return and marry him.
The first third of the book provides her reflections on her life growing up in the small Alabama town, her relationship with her father and others in her life, and her assessment of race relationships in the South. At the third-way mark, she is confronted with an event that shakes her belief system to her very core, and the rest of the book involves her coming to terms with this reality.
The title is taken from Isaiah 21:6 “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees,” which is referenced later as a person’s conscience. Throughout the book, her own conscience puts her at odds with those around her. While she feels compelled to point this out, she restrains herself until she clashes with her father toward the end.
As I read the book, I found myself comparing it primarily with The Help, another story where a young Southern woman returns to her hometown and finds herself unable to re-adjust to the life she left when she went off to college. A particularly strong parallel is Jean Louise’s aunt’s insistence on inviting the local women to a Coffee (always capitalized) in honor of her visit, not unlike the bridge and country club parties depicted in The Help. Both women also find their views on race relations at odds with those in their community.
Ms. Stockett, the author of The Help, however, had the benefit of hindsight with respect to the civil rights movement in crafting her story. Many of the events were still to come when Ms. Lee penned hers. Ms. Lee's prescience becomes even more impressive when considered in this light. Certain recent incidents involving the police and African-Americans highlight how far the country still has to go. In Go Set a Watchman, Ms. Lee raises the country’s undercurrent of prejudice and inequality to the surface and is as relevant today as it was in 1960. Her work continues to be a watchman for us all.
Does this book recall any other simliar books to mind?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre is a regular contributor to a number of Sherlock Holmes newsletters, providing insights into Victorian England and context to the Doyle stories. She woud like to invite interested readers to join her newsletter and receive a free thriller short story upon subscribing. You can check out previous articles and other free stories on her Website: www.liesesherwoodfabre.com