No one I know—with the possible exception of my niece—is a bigger fan of Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, than I am. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I approached her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, the publication of which has been met with considerable suspicion. Some commentators have claimed that Ms. Lee’s declining health and the death of her older sister, who was an attorney and the gatekeeper for, and protector of, Ms. Lee for most of her life, suggest that her decision to publish the second novel was not completely knowing and voluntary—a view that is also supported by Ms. Lee’s repeated assertions since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird that she would never write or publish another novel.
But all of that is part of the backdrop. What’s more interesting is the book.
Go Set a Watchman gets off to an incredibly slow and listless start. Twenty-six year old Jean Louise Finch (a/k/a Scout) returns to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York to visit her ailing father Atticus. The year is 1957, notably after the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education. Brother Jem Finch has previously died of the same congenital heart defect that claimed their mother. There are three characters not found in To Kill a Mockingbird. Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, is a retired doctor and aficionado of eighteenth and nineteenth century literature. He also functions as a sort of mentor for Scout. Aunt Alexandria has taken Calpurnia's place following the housekeeper's retirement and is caring for Atticus, who still attends to his law practice. Aunt Alexandria is a foil against which Ms. Lee smashes the shibboleths of Southern womanhood. Let’s just say she’s no “steel magnolia.” Finally, there’s a grown-up childhood sweetheart named Henry (“Hank”) Clinton, who is a World War II veteran, now lawyer working for Atticus. There is much discussion about whether he and Scout will get married.
The novel begins with numerous long and tedious descriptions of mundane events and flashbacks to Scout’s childhood. The writing is so bad it’s hard to imagine that the great Harper Lee is the author. Where the book gets interesting is when Scout discovers a pamphlet entitled “The Black Plague” among Atticus’s papers. Later, Scout follows Atticus to a “Citizens’ Council” meeting at which Hank is also present. Atticus introduces a speaker who delivers a speech full of racist invective. For fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, who see Atticus Finch as an American Cincinnatus, this comes as a shock. A reviewer in the New York Times is typical of many when she writes that readers will share Scout’s horror at learning that Atticus “has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies . . .” Such reviews typically make liberal use of the words “bigot” and “racist.”
What unfolds following the revelation of Atticus’s affiliation with the Citizens’ Council is what makes the book worth reading. Ms. Lee provides a thoughtful and careful discussion of race relations at the beginning of the modern civil rights movement and addresses many difficult questions that she avoided in To Kill a Mockingbird. She paints the picture carefully with small strokes and delicate shades. Unfortunately, reviewers like the author of the New York Times review see only the bold strokes in primary colors. I suspect their failure to appreciate the subtlety of Ms. Lee’s work springs from their desire to claim a position on the moral high ground, rather than to try to understand the complex nature of the dramatic social changes that were taking place at that time. It’s easier to lump people into predetermined categories than it is to truly understand what they think and feel.
Scout struggles with the same issues. She is highly critical of her father’s involvement with the Citizens’ Council and claims she won’t marry Hank because of his involvement. Nevertheless, after listening to Uncle Jack’s somewhat tortuous explanation of Atticus’s actions, she begins to understand that her father is an intelligent man of honor—a complex human being, not a super hero. (One of the lessons of my novel, Death in Panama, is that much harm can result when people are too quick to draw conclusions that are either unsupported by the facts or based on a lack of understanding. The risk of such harm is especially acute when the conclusion concerns something important, such as whether someone is a racist. The care one takes in drawing a conclusion should be directly proportional to the importance of the conclusion.)
If the reader can get past the tedious parts of Go Set a Watchman, there is much to learn, although it requires setting aside simplistic, preconceived notions of how the civil rights movement began and listening for the soft subtle voice of Ms. Lee.