Let’s get it out of the way: Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman is no To Kill a Mockingbird. For 55 years, the reclusive Lee has been lauded for her Pulitzer Prize-winning story of racial inequality and justice in Alabama as told by young Scout, and yet Lee remained a curiosity by shunning publicity and never publishing another word. Earlier this year, the book world was set atwitter with the news that Lee had agreed to the publication of Watchman, an early and forgotten manuscript said to be fodder for what became her beloved classic.
Go Set a Watchman opens with Scout, now Jean Louise Finch and a NYC resident, riding the sleeper car train back to Maycomb for her annual visit. She thinks about marrying childhood friend Hank who now practices law with Atticus, and she prepares for the inevitable head-butting with her Aunt Alexandra, who remains ever the example of proper Southern womanhood. Instead, grown-up Scout finds that she can’t go home again as she discovers the men she reveres have feet of clay, ascribing to a repugnant philosophy of white supremacy, paternalism and disenfranchisement.
Lee’s particular gift of filtering a puzzling world through the mindset of a child shines in Watchman, just as in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise’s memory of when she, Jem and Dill played a backyard game of church revival, which ends with a naked Scout’s “baptism” in an algae-slicked fish pond, is a lovely and gently sardonic poke at small town religious tradition. Both stories deal with coming of age in a community governed by a rigid unforgiving class structure which neither blacks nor whites escape. Watchman, however, seems more firmly rooted in a past when ugly language and divisive actions were acceptable in polite society, and here Jean Louise is left dealing with the unsatisfying ambiguities of adulthood.
Isaiah 21, verse 6: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. The watchman is both the announcer of the events he witnesses and a moral compass. Go Set a Watchman serves to remind the reader of the imperative to follow one’s conscience.