I know Go Set a Watchman isn’t technically a classic novel, but To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) is, and Harper Lee’s second novel has been on my TBR forever, so I figured this month would be a perfect place to squeeze in the read. And by squeeze it in, I mean listen to the audiobook! I was happy to find it on Hoopla through my local library, and even more delighted to learn that the narrator was Reese Witherspoon!
The novel is considered to be the prequel to TKAM, so for those who haven’t read it (gasp!) here is the short summary. Six year old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her older brother Jeremy “Jem” live with their lawyer father, Atticus, in Maycomb, AL, in 1933. Atticus has been appointed as a defense lawyer for a man named Tom Robinson, who had been accused of raping a young woman named Mayella Ewell. This causes a lot of controversy, not only because of the nature of the accusation, but also because Tom is black and Mayella is white- and racism, especially in the south, was rampant. Atticus’ choice to defend Tom despite his skin color made him a target in Maycomb, but Scout and Jem (and generations of readers) looked to him as a hero.
Now, this is where the prequel part fits in. Throughout Go Set A Watchman, there are many recollections of Jean Louise’s past, growing up in Maycomb and then moving north to New York City. Through all of the recollections, Atticus has been her moral compass from the time she was six years old, and helped the scrappy young tomboy grow up into a confident, independent young woman.
Jean Louise, now 26, returns to Maycomb, and is surprised by how little the town has changed- including it’s racial problems. At the time (1954), Brown v. Board of Education and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are considered sources of controversy. Having lived in modernized New York City, Jean Louise struggles with the what she is hearing and seeing in her hometown. Then, she finds that it isn’t just the town. In Atticus’ office, she finds a pamphlet with “The Black Plague” on it, and follows him and his protege, Henry, to a Citizen’s Council (ie, extreme white racist group kin to the KKK) meeting. Horrified and disgusted by the keynote speaker, she consults with her uncle Jack, who has been a great mentor to her. He lectures her on the history and complexity of racial issues in the deep south, but she still hasn’t grasped the connection between the lecture and the meeting that involved her father.
She decides to take action and confronts Henry, her childhood sweetheart whom she thought she may marry someday. She can’t believe that he was in attendance at the Citizen’s Council, and tells him that she could never marry him knowing that he took part and believed in the anti-integration movement. He tries to explain himself, but Jean Louise is having none of it. Afterwards, she packs her things, preparing to leave. She’s hurt, angry, and confused- everything her father taught her, his colorblindness, was a lie.
As she is about to leave, her uncle stops her, concerned. She explains her intolerance for Atticus’ and Henry’s actions, and he calls her a bigot. She is shocked, but he tells her to think things through and process what she has learned. She realizes her uncle is right- she has immediately shunned her father for not having beliefs that aligned with her own, for not being as exemplary as she always thought. She finally realizes that her father, her idol, is just a human- and though they think differently about racial segregation, he is still her father and raised her to freely decide what she thinks is right.
Although this novel isn’t a classic, I’m adamant that Lee’s ability to write about a controversial topic in such a direct approach makes her second novel absolutely worth reading. I did have a few issues with the book though, I have to admit. I really wasn’t sure where the plot was going for the first ten chapters, and noticed that occasionally the narration would jump from one topic to another between chapters without any real connection. This made it hard for me to follow along with via the audiobook. However, I really enjoyed listening to Reese Witherspoon voice Jean Louise, and though I was initially gutted to learn about Atticus, I loved the plot twist of how Jean Louise handles taking him off the pedestal she put him on.