by Harper Lee
HarperCollins, New York City. 288 pages.
REVIEWED BY JAN EDMISTON
Sacred assumptions are fading away by the minute. From the discovery of Kepler-452b, which blew up the assumption that the earth is the sole planet in the universe capable of sustaining human life, to the discovery of “Go Set a Watchman,” which blew up the assumption that Harper Lee wrote a single great novel, even our most sacred assumptions are evaporating – especially this summer. “Black-Lives-Matter” is the clarion call of our time – not because “All-Lives” don’t matter but because black lives haven’t mattered as crucially as other lives for the span of our nation’s history. As we read in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a black man falsely charged with violating a white woman was not an unfamiliar story.
“Go Set a Watchman,” especially for those of us who grew up in the South, also tells a familiar story. Jean Louise Finch might be a liberal New Yorker now, but her grandparents owned slaves before the war and while her father paid Calpurnia to be her childhood housekeeper, we can assume it would not lift Cal into the middle class. Nor would anyone expect that for her.
The sacred assumptions in 1950s Alabama are gorgeously depicted in this rich novel. Wealthy women in Alabama live in “a self-constructed private Gehenna with the latest Westinghouse appliances.” Funerals are followed by “tribal banquets.” And respectable, well-educated men like Atticus Finch are members of the Maycomb County Citizens Council – also known as the KKK.
In “Watchman,” we meet Hank who assumes he will marry Atticus’ daughter. People make assumptions about the NAACP and Catholics and Communists. Maycomb – and the South in general – is where people tell you who you are. It’s where appearances are everything and heritage is more than the Confederate flag. Perhaps the most sacred of assumptions is that even if I am “poor trash” I am still better than “those people,” and so we keep people in their place one way or another. Even for Southern Christians, the assumption was that the best ways were “white ways” and – when it comes to people of color – “Jesus loves them, but not much.”
The lifelong Methodist Harper Lee punctuates this great story with treasures that only the churchiest among us will appreciate to the fullest: references to “Mr. Cowper’s hallucination” and existential disturbance over the introduction of an unfamiliar version of the doxology. We’ve been in those worship services.
But we in the church are also quite familiar with the confusion over who we are versus what we do. Jean Louise cares less about what people are expected to do than what she expects them to be. “I expect you to be a man, that’s all!” she argues.
While it’s practically impossible to read this novel without picturing Mary Badham and Gregory Peck, we are blessed with a fresh glimpse forward of what became of the girl who befriended Boo Radley. But more impressively, Harper Lee prophetically speaks to us even – and especially – in 2015. It’s a blessing that “Go Set a Watchman” was released on the same day as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me.” Brace yourself and read them side by side.
Jan Edmiston is associate executive presbyter for ministry in the Presbytery Chicago. She grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.