‘Watchman’: True colors or subtle shades?

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What do we do when the distinct colors of childhood show up in shades we couldn’t discern before? (Photo by Alexas_Fotos)

When illusions about people and places we have long loved come crashing down, we are left to either reassemble something we can live with or walk away.

But were the things we thought we knew, in fact, illusions?

Such are the perplexities faced by Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, now twenty-six, in the late Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins, 2015). She returns home to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City to visit her father, Atticus, who is in his seventies and struggling with rheumatoid arthritis but still practicing law. Working alongside Atticus is Henry Clinton, Jean Louise’s lifelong friend, current boyfriend, and probable fiancé.

Only this is not the Maycomb we and Jean Louise knew in To Kill a Mockingbird  (originally published in 1960 by J.B. Lippincott & Co.), where Atticus courageously defended a black man against a false rape charge. Now, in the 1950s, tensions over racial justice and who has the right to make the rules for whom are turning Southern communities, families, heads, and hearts into battlegrounds.

Sitting in her old spot in the courthouse’s “Colored” balcony, where she and brother Jem used to watch Atticus at work, Jean Louise observes a citizens’ council meeting. Both Atticus and Henry are present. She is sickened not only by the racist language and ideas she hears, but by the apparent agreement of both men.

Difficult (and rambling) conversations follow; with Henry, with former housekeeper Calpurnia, with offbeat intellectual Uncle Jack, and finally and most painfully, with Atticus. Readers who have spent half a century with this family no doubt share the young woman’s anguish.

What Jean Louise is now seeing — for example, her father’s view of blacks as childlike and incapable and Henry’s need to belong at any cost — has always been there. Her hometown has long been segregated. It would be easy to say Jean Louise, who has been living up North, is the one who changed and leave it at that. However, our way of seeing things changes as we grow up and create our own realities, no matter where we are.

When the distinct colors of childhood give way to a puzzling array of shades and gradations, it can feel like a betrayal … especially at a time when basic human rights and dignity are being questioned and fought over. Jean Louise, navigating the shifting terrain of young adulthood in this setting, has to decide whether and how to find a way forward.

As I understand it, Watchman was Lee’s original novel, and a publisher convinced her to turn the flashback sequences into a separate work, which became Mockingbird. There was some controversy, just before the release of Watchman, over whether the then elderly and ailing Lee actually wanted it to be published. She died in 2016. What I wonder is: If the younger Scout and Atticus had lived between the same covers as their older counterparts, would it still have become a beloved classic? These questions cannot be answered.

What I can say is this: If Watchman taints our appreciation of Mockingbird, we are in the same boat as Jean Louise, trying to reconcile what we knew with what is now before us. Perhaps, in these equally polarizing and vitriolic times, that is a useful exercise.

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