After many years, I reread To Kill a Mockingbird this spring with my eighth graders. At first, I thought the students were going to sacrifice me, yet as the story unfolded, many proclaimed it one of their favorite books of the year. At the same time, word of Go Set the Watchman hit the news, so I pre-ordered a copy from Amazon. Then, just days before its release, word of Atticus metamorphosis into a segregationist became a hot topic on social media. Parents who had named their sons Atticus second guessing that decision.
Harper Lee’s Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird is a pillar of strength, a moral compass, a voice of reason, the type of person many aspire to after reading. As I reread the book with my students, I began to ask myself what Atticus would do, given some of the parenting pitfalls I would soon approach with three teenage boys. At 48, with no idols to speak of, Atticus had secretly become someone I looked to for guidance. Simply put, I felt like wearing a What Would Atticus Do? wristband was not entirely out of the question.
I entered Go Set the Watchman with a somewhat jaded outlook. Word of Atticus’s transformation, I feared, would spoil my reading experience. After all, aren’t we more likely to become more liberal, not less, as we age? This had always been my observation. Maybe I’m floating in a sea of liberals.
The story begins with Scout, now referred to in adulthood by her given name, Jean Louise, returning to Maycomb for a two-week visit. Atticus has reached his 70’s and suffers terribly from rheumatoid arthritis. Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s older sister, has moved in with him. Hank, a childhood friend of Jem’s, is Atticus’s law partner. Hank is quite smitten with Jean Louise and intends to marry her. Jean Louise is not so sure about marriage. She has seen quite a different life in New York, and the prospect of marrying, only to grow tired of her spouse, scares her. Hank’s pursuit of Jean Louise could have been the main conflict, yet Harper Lee presented readers with something we had no idea was coming.
As we know from To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus was the only lawyer in town who would give Jim, accused of raping Mayella Ewell, his best legal effort. Based on his actions, one would think Atticus progressive for his time. However, Go Set the Watchman, presents a more thorough perspective of Atticus’s beliefs. As Jean Louise begins to see Atticus for what she believes he is and the idol she once worshipped begins to tarnish, she turns to Uncle Jack, now retired from medicine and living in Maycomb. During one of their discussions, Uncle Jack terms Atticus a Jeffersonian Democrat because he took a narrow view of how the federal government should brandish its power.
Blacks in Maycomb, empowered by the NAACP, have begun to assert themselves. Many of Maycomb’s white citizens don’t quite know what to do, so a town council is formed. When Jean Louise sneaks into the courthouse to see what the town council is all about, she can’t believe what she hears the members and guest speaker saying about blacks. Furthermore, she goes into a state of shock when she sees Hank and Atticus sitting silently and listening to the speaker’s disparaging remarks. Jean Louise is floored by Atticus’s lack of response to statements with which she believes he disagrees. With her whole world turned upside down (sorry for the cliche!) she seeks answers, the complexity of which frustrate her. Gone are the simple tenets to living she learned on Atticus’s knee as a young girl. The world has become much more complicated, and her first instinct is to run.
Unlike so many others, I was not disappointed by the book. Lee’s story presents readers with tough questions about race, allowing other perspectives, and surrounding ourselves with others just like us. Although some of the flashbacks to Jean Louise’s youth are lifted directly from To Kill a Mockingbird, these respites from the story help bridge the two-time periods. Sadly, though, America still struggles with the issues of 1950’s Maycomb. Poll taxes, bigotry, and prejudice still stain the fibers of our modern society.