I remember the first time I read Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I must have been around 11 and full of idealistic ideas about life, about the world and the future. The book took me by surprise, allowing me to question practices as well as shout at what I thought was wrong. Probably, sitting here comfortably in India, I never would have realized the social impact of the book had I not followed it up with other readings on racism and various forms of it. The book turned into my favourite, and from my favourite it became the one book I would recommend or gift to all unsuspecting friends. At any given point in time, I think, I had two copies of the book in my house.
Therefore, I was in two minds about reading the ‘next’ novel by Lee. After a not-so-brief hiatus of 55 years, Lee decided to publish another book around the same characters. Scout’s relationship with her father, Atticus Finch, is what makes up the story. The story traces Scout or Jean Louise – now a young woman studying in the city – as she comes to terms with the changes in society and more importantly in her father and hero, Atticus. Maycomb town has changed since her childhood and it is now rife with tension between the haves and the have-nots. Her brother Jim has passed away and Calpurnia is no more her doting nanny, but probably just another face representing the ‘negro’ population.
Now, for anyone who has read To Kill a Mockingbird, they would remember Atticus as a righteous man, a lawyer who fought for what he believed to be right – irrespective of the outcome. The Atticus of Mockingbird however is going to disappoint readers in this novel. Because here, he is more concerned about society, about social stability and progress. Jean Louise tries to comprehend this change and cannot, in her rebellious just-out-of-teens age understand the necessity for any of it.
Take this line from the book for example, “But a man who has lived by truth—and you have believed in what he has lived—he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing. I think that is why I’m nearly out of my mind.” It shows you the helplessness with which Jean Louise looks at her father, her childhood hero who is a hero no more.
In a way, Go Set a watchman is about people growing up, and about innocence lost. However, it is not age that makes one lose the innocence, but the return to the town which was once home.
While there have been a lot of hue and cry about the change in Atticus, and claims that Lee has painted a racist picture of the Maycomb hero, the truth is it is probably a much more believable picture. The Atticus of the new book faults, and is still a good man. Which makes him more of a hero. And for each of us who have grown up reading (and maybe, pretending to be Scout) Mockingbird, this change will probably be reflected around us in real life as well.
We have all grown up, and it is time Scout does as well.