Go Set a Watchman: An Unexpected Twist

The publication of the "sequel" to To Kill a Mockingbird has been controversial, with many readers believing Harper Lee never intended the book to be published.

The publication of the “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird has been controversial, with many readers believing Harper Lee never intended the book to be published.

I approached Go Set a Watchman with as much objectivity as I possibly could approach anything that had received so much attention. At least that’s what I told myself. What I didn’t admit was that I wanted to like this story. I expected to read the book and recommend it to everyone I knew and maybe to a few people I didn’t know. I expected it to be delightful.

What happened surprised me.

We meet Jean Louise, the adult Scout, on her way home to Maycomb to enjoy a two-week vacation from her job in New York. The prose is easy to read, pleasantly absorbing, yet unpredictable. Although filled with the air of literary fiction Harper Lee does not alienate the reader with needless eloquence. Instead she quickly establishes the importance of the characters and allows the characters to drive the story.

It is through the characters the reader learns about Jean Louise’s childhood values. Flashbacks and description show what Jean Louise most admires and remembers about each person in her life, especially her father. Atticus Finch is her foundation, her teacher, and guide. Childhood experiences are laced with deep lessons, more profound than what other children experience. Those experiences shape her decisions and what she wants most from her life. A life not defined by the other women in Maycomb.

The beginning of this book slowly and deliberately sets up the second half. I read the first half of this book with a sense of enchantment and odd familiarity. I drifted easily into Harper Lee’s masterful set up.

The second half of the book is not the product of only one incident. It is the culmination of two unrelated scenes that at first appear to have nothing to do with each other. There is one consistent factor. Atticus Finch demonstrates reactions and interest that portray him differently than anticipated. This is the turning point of the story, the top of the story arc and, as it turns out, the top of the Jean Louise’s character arc. She is presented with a new reality and it doesn’t match the reality she has known her entire life.

It is also the top of the reader’s arc, or at least this reader. I did not expect the confrontation that follows. The way Jean Louise reacts and what she says shows the character’s value system on full tilt. It also shows something of the writer and the time the story was written. At first I had no idea how to react to what I was reading. I was shocked and I guess in many ways offended. Afterwards, I allowed the story to settle so I could attack it fairly.

Remember, I wanted to like this story. I couldn’t walk away from it offended or disillusioned. I had to make sense of it.

I read the liner notes on the jacket and was reminded that the story was written in the mid 1950s. That gave me a different perspective. I thought about some of the things I heard when I was very young and realized I just read a story written when the belief I didn’t understand at the time was considered to be an unarguable truth. It wasn’t old when Harper Lee wrote about it.

Yet, that was not the important lesson taken from this story. It had more to do with how one relates to those around them. Should they accept another’s right to their belief?

That is a hard question to answer. If beliefs are damaging, should we patrol them or accept them? Hard to say, but Jean Louise makes a choice. Whether it’s the right choice is left up to the reader. Although I had my doubts I was happy I had read this story.

No, I don’t think Harper Lee wanted to publish this story. If she did she would have years ago. Yet, I do recommend the novel.

The recommendation comes with a condition, however. If you read Go Set A Watchman I ask that you read it with the knowledge that it was written sixty years ago. Do not consider whether either side of the argument is right or wrong. Consider the argument for what it might have been sixty years ago and how it has influenced the argument as it stands today. Enjoy the story. If we change the argument to be more contemporary does it make sense? I don’t know. I would never profess to be that smart. But it is, after all, a good story.
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Review by Ron Shannon for Pennsylvania Bridges. Ron Shannon, a storyteller with a fondness for tales set in the not-so-long-ago, is the author of The Hedgerows of June, a Maggie Award finalist, the noir Gabriel’s Wing, and soon to be released Staring Into the Blizzard. Ron has an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. His books are available to purchase on amazon.com.

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