I will always remember my 7th grade English teacher Mrs. Scollante as the creator of worlds. In one magical school year she introduced me to the literary loves of my life, Mr. Darcy and Atticus Finch. While my fellow classmates yawned and suffered through class discussions I soaked in every word. Twenty years later and those two books still hold a special place in my library and in my heart. In the subsequent years to come I devoured every other piece of writing by Jane Austen, falling harder with each discovery.
Sadly my thirst for Harper Lee began and ended with To Kill A Mockingbird. While it broke my heart that she had only produced one piece of genius it also made a certain sense to me. She had conveyed the message she had been put on this earth to share. Sometimes you only need one book to make your mark. However, all such notions flew out of my head the minute I heard about the impending publication of Go Set A Watchman. A sequel, after all these years? My inner nerd did back flips for days.
I couldn’t wait to once again fall back in time and find myself in the sweltering heat of Maycomb County. To laugh with Jem, to rage against conformity with Scout and to rise above it all with grace like Atticus. However, as negative reviews and lurid controversies began to emerge my excitement turned to fear. Instead of rushing out to buy the book I put it off as long as I could. Finally, I decided I was doing my 14-year-old self a disservice and picked up a copy.
I began the novel in trepidation that later turned into anguish. The characters I had grown up on, had looked up to for guidance, were almost changed beyond recognition. Some of my favorites were noticeably absent with new characters left in their wake. Atticus was now old, with his illustrious shine worn down, like a much-loved teddy bear missing his fur. Albeit older, Scout was still Scout and therefore a life jacket to keep me afloat through murky waters.
With Scout as my guide, and plenty of fresh flashbacks to keep me entertained I began to read in earnest. I even found myself falling for a new love, Scout’s Uncle Jack, an eccentric academic after my own heart. Nevertheless, my disillusionment grew alongside Scout’s, yet in that mirror I began to see things in a very different light. After all one of the cruelties of growing up is seeing our idols as human. It is only after we accept their humanity that we begin to understand their faults as more inevitable than disappointing. The overarching theme is that to grow we must destroy our gods in order to be free of their constraints.
To write Go Set a Watchman off as merely a disappointing sequel is to miss the forest for the trees. In this work, which reads 100% Lee, we learn more about the human condition than ever before. It’s not the sanitized child’s view we are treated to in To Kill a Mockingbird, but the underbelly of life as seen through an adult’s eyes. In real life we live in a state of moral ambiguity, a truth never so aptly expressed than in the state of racial tension we live in today.
While her words may bring you discomfort, Ms. Lee’s insight into mankind is nothing short of genius. Her prophetic ability to breakdown mortal complexities and to somehow shed a sympathetic light on the wrong side of segregation cements her influence as one of the greatest writers of the 21st Century. The importance of this book on race relations is profound, giving an unheard voice to the roots of prejudice. In no uncertain terms she reminds us that it is the process of understanding our own bias that enables us to begin to breakdown the invisible barriers to equality. We can then become an example, a guide for others still lost in their own ignorance. Go set a watchman and declare what you see.