Before receiving a high school diploma, most students have to complete a rite of passage: reading Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird—a coming-of-age classic that explores innocence, racism and injustice. Lee’s newest novel, Go Set a Watchman, isn’t anything like her debut book, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t return to Macomb County.
Here’s a rundown of the novel for those who decided their hearts just couldn’t take the beating: Set in the 1950s, 26-year-old Scout, who now goes by her given name Jean Louise (blah), takes a break from New York to visit her hometown Macomb, Alabama. Instead of being greeted by the slow-moving town and familiar faces, she’s confronted with modernization and a racial divide that has deepened since her departure. Most surprisingly, her (intelligent and attractive) father and once moral compass, Atticus, has turned from a civil rights hero to a racist segregation advocate, and hearts around the world shattered into a million pieces.
“You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you?” the 72-year-old lawyer asks his daughter when she confronts him about being a member of Macomb’s “citizens’ council,” a group of men that reject the NAACP. Isolated and abandoned in a place she once called home, Jean Louise frantically searches for an explanation and questions her own morals in the process.
Despite its unsettling plot, unredeemable characters and awkward writing, it’s impossible to overlook the lessons readers can learn from Lee’s second novel.
1.Idols fall. Things change.
RIP hero Atticus Finch, hello racist Atticus Finch. Even though I had a cry fest when reading the degradation of one of my favorite characters (and an award-winning literary father), these things happen in reality, and it sucks. We revisit our parents and hometowns to find the landscape changed. Unsettling facts of our favorite activists and heroes surface. But what’s more crucial is what we do after a tragedy, which brings me to the novel’s next lesson:
2. Be the hero of your own story.
Although Scout was an endearing and lovable character in Mockingbird, it was the Atticus show (and I would be lying if I said I didn’t want front row seats). In Watchman, Jean Louise goes through an identity crisis after finding out about Atticus and her racist community. She has to depend on her own morals. As Atticus advises, “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.” Scout is the hero of her own story, who makes a few mistakes along the way.
3. Respect opinions. And don’t tell people to “pee in a hat.”
In her anger, Jean Louise compares Atticus to Hitler and tells her aunt to pee in a hat. Typical Scout. Making generalizations and attempting to hurt an opponent in a debate doesn’t help anyone; It leads to more battle scars than victories. Even though I passionately disagree with Watchman‘s Atticus, I envy his ability to keep cool in an argument.
4. A bigot isn’t simply someone who disagrees with you.
Sometimes we fiercely throw the label “bigot” at anyone who dissent from popular opinion. There are definitely Grade A bigots out there, but Atticus refreshes our vocab when he calls Jean Louise one. Here’s the definition of “bigot” according to dictionary.com:
A bigot can be someone who unfriends Facebook “friends” for their differing opinions. They can be racists or saints, activists or haters.
5. God bless editing.
Watchman is the alleged first draft of Mockingbird, but Lee’s publishers rejected it, asking the author to elaborate on Scout’s childhood. And thank god they did. All hail editors, the real MVPs of this story.
There is a lot to dislike about this book (you can read my review of it here), but there are moments of beautiful clarity. So pour yourself a glass of whiskey, open the novel, and hate it if you want, but at least revisit Macomb. It may have a changed landscape, but it’s still home.