Book Review: ‘Go Set A Watchman’

Reading Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman” is like walking down an old familiar trail.

You see the same trees, but they look a little bit older; the familiar tread somewhat more worn than you remember. But all the while you’re walking with the assurance that it’s the same path it’s always been. Your walking companion Jean Louise Finch, better known as “Scout,” guides you and points out the changes she sees just as you do.

In many ways Jean Louise has changed and stayed the same, but then so have you since you read “To Kill a Mockingbird” all those years ago. But now a storm is coming: thunder crashes, a tree falls, and the trail is being washed away. You and Jean Louise grab hands and blindly feel your way on the path that was so familiar just seconds ago and is now barely visible. The people you recognized on the path before have now left you. You are left spinning in circles trying to find north.

The main thrust of the novel is Jean Louise’s annual return trip to Maycomb from her home in New York. She comes back every summer to stay with her father, Atticus Finch. Surrounded by the issue of civil rights, Jean Louise is confronted with the change that often is hard to swallow when it comes to childhood ideals.

There’s no Boo Radley with all his mystery and no mention of the soap dolls or the spelling bee pin. There is just new, old memories we didn’t know before. Jem and Dill and Calpurnia are distant memories, individuals who either moved away or are now dead. The three are replaced with Hank and Aunt Alexandra and the shadow of an aged Atticus. Have the people Jean Louise has always known really changed, or has she changed?

The civil rights issue boils over towards the end of the book as Jean Louise realizes everyone around her is consumed by their perfect picture of the white South. Should the African-American people of the time be allowed to live among the white people? They had been so oppressed that they aren’t ready to handle the responsibility of citizenship. They aren’t educated enough yet. These are the answers she receives, and Jean Louise rejects them.

Jean Louise is no longer Scout. Scout’s world was full of curiosity and naive trust, but now Jean Louise’s world is full of lies and disappointment. Jean Louise is full of passion and strong beliefs, and she won’t compromise on anything. However, she forgets that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. You can’t make a change by yelling in someone’s face. You have to meet people where they are and guide them out of their blindness. Atticus understands this. He’s still the same wise lawyer, who does what is right by the law, and listens to anyone who needs him.

Similarly, Maycomb hasn’t changed. It is still a town of tradition. Jean Louise’s knight in shining armor, Atticus, is still there for her. Jean Louise struggles with applying her New York sense of living to the old and intricate ways of the South. Atticus’ ways are no longer synonymous to her’s, but that might just be all right.

Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.

“To Kill A Mockingbird” was published in 1960 and has a much lighter tone than than Lee’s newly published novel “Go Set A Watchmen,” released July 2015.

“To Kill A Mockingbird” is about growing up and knowing when to pick your battles and when to leave things alone. “Go Set A Watchman” teaches a similar, but different, lesson in that growing up is hard and you have to know when to stop trying to change people to conform to your perfect image of them. Atticus teaches this lesson to Jean Louise the hard way by making her shed her childhood illusions of the world.

Shaune Young is a junior English major and arts and entertainment writer for Cedars. She enjoys outside reading and exploring the gloriously rich culture and history of the United States.

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