Posted by: Rachel | July 15, 2017

My thoughts on Go Set a Watchman

I just finished reading the book Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. I had been forewarned that it would wreck the image of Atticus, and yet it was still surreal to actually read it and see him knocked from his pedestal. I felt compelled to do a review of sorts for those who have been afraid to read it.

In 2012 our first son was born and we named him Atticus. It didn’t take long to see a pattern in people’s response to his name. There were two distinct camps, the first being those that had never heard the name before and just kinda said uh. If you think about it, the name does sound strange if you don’t have the book To Kill a Mockingbird as a reference point. The second group of people loved the name, and always said, ‘oh yes, like Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird!’ Anyone who had ever heard the name had nothing but good associations with it because the only association most people had was Atticus Finch. And Atticus Finch was the finest of men, a man who did what was right when no one else would, a loving father to his two motherless children. He was an inspiration, and I felt like my child had a leg up on life to have such a universally positive name. For 50+ years the name Atticus was a symbol of justice. There was no way to go wrong with it.

Of course it would have to be that merely two years after we give our son this wonderful name another book is released by Harper Lee that tears apart our idyllic view of Atticus Finch. I found the book on Overdrive and borrowed it today. I’d put off reading it for a few years. One person told me he wasn’t even able to finish it, because he was so upset with the story.

The book begins when Scout/Jean Louise Finch is 27 and on a trip home to visit her father in Maycomb. If you loved the character of Scout in TKaM you will probably also love her in GSaW. She’s still that spunky girl who doesn’t wear proper dresses and her world revolves around her father and male companions. She chafes at her aunt’s expectations for her to be a proper Southern lady. Honestly, I loved Scout as a girl but I think I love her even more as an adult. Maybe it’s because I’m only five years older than her fictional age in GSaW, but I really identify with her and her struggles. Her father raised her in a way that ill prepared her for the attitudes of Maycomb. Her values make her feel at ease in New York City and out of place in Maycomb, yet she’s oddly comforted by the familiarity of her hometown. She fears losing her identity if she gets married and finds nothing in common with the ladies of Maycomb and their chatter of husbands,children, and segregation politics.

The book occasionally provides little jumps in time as Scout reminisces of her childhood years with Jem and Dill. If you’re a huge TKaM fan then you may want to read the book for those alone. Otherwise the book serves as a memoir type story, a tale of finding oneself. Yes, the character of Atticus is diminished, but the lesson Scout learns is a valuable one. SPOILER ALERT: I find it fascinating that the book is hated for the same reasons that Scout gets so angry at Atticus. We have collectively made Atticus our conscience. We have held him up on a pedestal as the embodiment of justice and especially racial justice. Our indignation with the book is the exact same indignation that Scout feels when she finds her father isn’t who she thought he was. If this book had been the first book published, as Lee wrote it first, we would never have built up Atticus. Because it was published so many years after TKaM there have been generations of people who have read the book and built Atticus into a literary hero. Without this history GSaW would be a completely different book. It’s a good story, not necessarily a great one. I felt the ending was a bit abrupt and the flashbacks to her childhood would be confusing if you didn’t have TKaM to help understand it. I can understand why editors rejected the book initially. That being said, I find the book to be quite valuable as an addition to TKaM.

If you’ve read Go Set a Watchman I’d love to know your thoughts on the book. Were you disappointed with Atticus?


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