Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” is a somber yet prolific coming-of-age tale

Kat Sampson

If one thing should be made clear, Harper Lee’s long-awaited second novel “Go Set a Watchman” is not a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

While a number of the same characters remain, the story is not a young person’s first-hand account of a singular event, as “Mockingbird” is. The point of view shifts from a story to a person, making “Watchman” a coming-of-age character study of the beloved protagonist, Jean Louise Finch.

At 26-years-old, Finch returns to Macomb on a vacation from her current residence in New York City. Over the course of a number of days and 300 pages, the reader will witness a deep physiological shift in the central character.   

“Now [Finch] was aware of a sharp apartness, a separation, not from Atticus and Henry merely. All of Macomb and Macomb County were leaving her as the hours passed and she automatically blamed herself,” Lee writes.  

Lee exposes Finch’s evolving world by drawing the reader into different plotlines regardless of their place on the story’s timeline. One minute the reader is sitting in the backseat of a car listening to a conversation between Finch and her longtime boyfriend Henry Clinton, and the next they’re watching a game among Jem, Scout and Dill.

Harper wants the reader to experience stories that take place in the distant past, recent past and present. These history lessons inform the reader and explain exactly how Macomb is changing. Each tale adds itself to an immense patchwork quilt that symbolizes small-town Southern life in the 1950s.  

Harper uses Finch’s familiar quick wit and new-found city-girl perspective to highlight the South’s peculiar society rituals. Her descriptions aren’t devoid of ridicule, but the narrator rarely condescends her hometown. Flashbacks often drip with nostalgia quintessential to a coming-of-age novel.

It’s not surprising that Lee’s publisher asked her to expand on the flashback portions of the text, which ended up become “Mockingbird,” as they are arguably the most fun passages to read. Lee determines astonishingly well what quirky Southern ritual should be experienced through the eyes of a 7-year-old versus those of a progressive, sometimes cynical adult.

Critics were quick to point out the clear differences between the patriarch Atticus Finch in “Mockingbird” and “Watchman” — most distinctively, his racist attitude toward African-Americans.

There are sides of the aging patriarch Atticus Finch that readers have not seen before, but his personality remains much the same. The 76-year-old is humorous, introspective to the point of introversion, patient and giving to those closest to him. This makes the chapter when Jean Louise finds out her father has been attending anti-integration meetings painfully visceral.

After discovering a pamphlet titled “The Black Plague” sitting among Atticus’ Sunday paper, she follows her father and her boyfriend to the courthouse where a local citizen council meeting is being held. Jean Louise sits in her usual balcony spot as she listens to the middle-age segregationist leader spew hateful speech that will make the reader’s stomach turn just as it does to the narrator, who eventually leaves the courthouse to puke.

The scene reads like a nightmare and Jean Louise’s quickening heartbeat can be felt through the pages. What follows is a chapter of deep introspection in which Jean Louise searches for the man she thought her father used to be — although she quickly realizes he never was.

Despite a disgruntled reader or two, “Watchman” is a lovely addition to the literary world. Lee’s gift at nailing the middle-class lifestyle in a small Southern town is Austenian and a joy to read.

Readers should rejoice if “Watchman” becomes a landmark novel, teaching future generations of the Brown v. Board of Education era — even at the risk of losing Atticus Finch.

Title: Go Set a Watchman

Author: Harper Lee

Pages: 278

Rating: 7/10