Curious, Challenging, and Unexpected
If you’ve cherished To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman will probably be a curious, challenging, and possibly unsatisfying experience. Mockingbird, both the book and the film, has, of course, claimed such an iconic niche in the public psyche that this related volume is at an immediate disadvantage. Yet Watchman also surprises with its own course and, I found, lingered in my mind long after I completed it.
At first Watchman seems to meander with its story line, perhaps like small-town life in the heat of summer. The protagonist, Jean Louise, returns to Maycomb Junction, Georgia, her hometown, for an annual visit to her beloved father, Atticus, who has aged considerably since he first appeared in Mockingbird as the single father of two young children. Soon enough Maycomb’s cast of characters appears, each of study of tradition, ritual, and quirkiness. There’s an early suggestion that race relations will dominate this story, but the start of the incident seems much-delayed. In the meantime, the flashbacks of childhood reminiscences sometimes seem almost irrelevant. Jean Louise’s close relationship with her older brother and her flirtation with her childhood friend and perhaps future husband set the scene further.
Once Jean Louise is exposed to the reality of how her family, especially her father, experiences and accommodates the questions of race, she is thrown into a tailspin. What surprises and troubles the story is the turn from attitudes about race to a young woman’s coming of age. How does she live with an idyllic childhood and romanticized relationships and how does she set herself free to find her own way as an adult? The turnabout is intriguing, but Jean Louise’s conclusions about race in 1950s South seem unresolved. The author does present the question of how much understanding and patience are required for something as complicated as a way of life tied to racial disparities and, frequently, outright racism.
Although Watchman might have been better told with greater focus and story development, it is an intriguing story that is ultimately as nuanced and complicated as Southern racial traditions and way of life.