“As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings—I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em like all of us.”
I read Go Set a Watchman the week that it was released, but I didn’t get around to blogging about it till now. It was a great book, and I’ll explain why I thought so, but first, I feel like it’s worth some space here to explain the main misconception that still remains surrounding Go Set a Watchman.
Misconception: Go Set a Watchman is a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird
Go Set a Watchman is technically closer to a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird than anything else. Harper Lee wrote it, took it to her publisher, and was told that it was pretty good, but Scout’s flashbacks to her childhood were the best part. Lee’s publisher wanted more Scout. Lee scrapped her original manuscript and wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, which her publisher loved. So did the public. So did the Pulitzer Prize committee. So did Harper Lee.
Not a sequel. Not a follow-up.
It’s a separate story that happens to contain the early ideas of who these same characters were supposed to be. However, many key details are very different, and quite a few readers even gloss over the fact that in Go Set a Watchman, for example, Tom Robinson was acquitted, completely opposing the climax of Mockingbird, where Tom is found guilty.
Go Set a Watchman introduces us to Scout as 26-year-old independent woman, living in New York, coming back to visit Maycomb for the first time in a long time. The crux of the plot is Scout’s discomfort at finding her hometown and almost everybody in it to be undeniably racist and perfectly okay with that. After living in the metropolitan North, this comes as quite a shock, and she has to re-evaluate a lot of her core beliefs about herself, her background, and the way she believes things really ought to be.
I thoroughly enjoyed Go Set a Watchman, because it talks about issues that we need to learn to deal with now. A lot of people have expressed hearty disapproval of Atticus’s racism in Watchman, and understandably so. We’ve all grown up with Atticus being a hero, a lighthouse, a shining beacon of truth and right. But first of all, we need to remember that Watchman is not a sequel. It’s a separate book. Then, we need to put ourselves in Scout’s shoes.
Imagine that your dad has been a blemish-free hero who can do no wrong and commit no sin, and one day you come home to find that he’s joined the Klan. I think you would be upset, but ask yourself, why? Why would it be so upsetting to learn that your father had changed? Why would it be so upsetting to discover that maybe he’d been this way the whole time?
It would ruin me if I had spent a significant amount of time and energy building a foundation on my father (who is not a racist, for the record), only to discover as an adult that my father was not a perfect foundation, in fact a rather bad foundation.
It would ruin me to discover that the perfect political party — the one I’d based all my views and behaviors on — was secretly poisoning the elderly for the sake of preserving some Social Security for the rest of us. It would ruin me if I’d built my foundation on them.
It would ruin me if I based all of my behaviors, beliefs, practices, interactions, etc. on a church that I deemed to be “perfect”, “infallible”, or “flawless”. Because there is no such thing.
Just like Scout’s eccentric old uncle Jack says, “You confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings—I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em like all of us.”
What do you do, when you discover that you’ve been basing your life on something that wasn’t what you thought it was?
That’s the question that Scout has to face in Go Set a Watchman and that’s the question I see so many people avoiding today. That’s why people are mad about racist Atticus. It’s damaging their long-held beliefs about the way things are or the way things are supposed to be.
The other thing I took away from Watchman was a lesson in true tolerance.
If you discovered your father was a bigot, would you still love him?
Even if you disagreed on important things like race or religion, could you set that aside and go visit every once in a while, or would you disavow your own father in the name of tolerance?
Can you love your gay brother despite what your religion teaches you about homosexual behavior?
Can you love your Christian brother despite what his religion teaches him about homosexual behavior?
Are you afraid that if you love a bigot, you’ll become one?
If that’s what you’re scared of, where’s your foundation?
Go Set a Watchman: 5 stars and a universal recommendation.