The story begins with Scout headed home to South Alabama for her yearly visit. She takes the train from New York, the place she has chosen to live in, about as far away as you can get culturally from where she grew up. We see the north, sophistication and city life fade away the farther she goes until the red clay earth shows through along with the poverty, the ‘swept yard’, the old customs all return. Her father’s health is declining and his sister Alexandria has moved in to help take care of him. Scout’s brother Jem, has died a few years earlier but she is met at the train station by Henry (Hank), a protégé of her father’s whom she has known since childhood and who appears to be her beaux, at least during the few days she is home in Maycomb. He wants Jean Louise to marry him, but she knows that would mean giving up her New York City lifestyle, moving home and raising kids, being the good wife, an end to her aspirations to be a writer. Scout won’t tell Hank no, but she won’t say yes either. Jean Louis up until this point has no disillusionments about her family. Her auntie drives her insane with her Victorian morals and expectations, but that is not a change from the way she has always been, and she still loves visiting with her Uncle Jack, an eccentric retired doctor whose passion is English literature, and who is at least truthful with her even though he has no real power in the community the way Atticus does.
Harry (Hank) had become a second son to Atticus since the death of Jem. As Jean Louis settles into normal life back at home her whole world is turned upside down when Atticus and Henry leave on a Sunday afternoon for a meeting at the courthouse. She begins tidying up papers that her father has been reading and finds a racist pamphlet. She decides to go down to the courthouse to see what the meeting is all about. She climbs the stairs to the balcony and watches, however this proves to be her undoing because she sees Atticus agreeing with the racists about what should be done in their southern community to avoid the ‘troubles’ that other southern cities are having. Atticus has agreed to take on a case involving a relative of Calpurnia’s, the black woman who raised her and Jem after their mother died. This relative has killed, albeit accidentally, a white man and the town leaders are afraid that the NAACP will get involved as they have in many other cases where a white jury will sit in judgment over a black man. In contrast to the famous trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is only taking this case to keep the NAACP out and does not believe he will win. Jean Louis is literally sickened by what she hears and, in a daze, walks to her old house out of habit, but it has been torn down and an ice cream parlor put up in its place.
Poor Scout has a hard time coming to grips with how her father and Henry are behaving. She feels lost without her guiding light, her father, whose moral compass has always served as her own. In fact her uncle Jack tells her towards the end that she must begin to live her life by her own standards instead of substituting her father into her own consciousness. When I read the book I didn’t think it was impossible that Atticus and Henry were trying to do the best they could given the circumstances. Having grown up in the South I understood the outrage that Jean Louise felt at what she thought was happening. I also understood that Atticus and Henry, who lived there and nowhere else, must behave differently in order to remain members of the society with a chance of making some kind of change. Scout’s world had been black and white and now it had suddenly, in just a few days, turned to many shades of gray. Her uncle Jack tries to convince her to come home to live, to take part in the fight instead of running back to New York, above the fray so to speak.
While the story of Go Set a Watchman is appealing, thoroughly believable and well-written, the comparison with To Kill a Mockingbird is difficult. What I am reading now suggests that the latter was a first draft of the former, which I find hard to believe. I would rather think that while Watchman was written before Mockingbird, the two have not too much else in common. I suspect that Mockingbird was developed from another story entirely. It’s difficult to separate them entirely since both are drawn so heavily from Harper Lee’s childhood. I can also see why Harper Lee held on to this manuscript even though she didn’t publish it. It’s so personal; a native Southern woman’s coming of age against the backdrop of the old South during the civil rights movement.
Although not in the same rank as Mockingbird, which portrays what men should have been rather than maybe what was, it is never the less a worthy story. It would be interesting to know how the manuscript ended up in the safe deposit box or why she never tried to publish it until her health was failing. I’m glad it was finally published because it gives us another glimpse into the small town American South during a very important period.