The Gift and the Curse of Conscience

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Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee

I wasn’t going to read this book when I first discovered it published; I thought everything necessary to know about the Finch family and the town of Maycomb, Alabama, had been written into Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. But the possibility of reading a sequel to the original proved too strong.

As I was to learn from the reading, however, this book wasn’t a sequel as much as a parallel tale. Atticus Finch is an old man now, Scout/Jean Louise a twenty-something and considering marriage to Hank Clinton, Jem gone. The first half for the book gives the reader a view of Maycomb through the eyes and ears of Jean Louise some years after her move to New York. She, then, is an outsider of a unique sort: intimately familiar with the people and place of Maycomb, viewing both with innocence and bias, thus a somewhat reliable/unreliable narrator.
The centerpiece of Lee’s story here is a chance eavesdropping on a citizen’s council meeting in Maycomb, in which an outsider regales the city fathers with a long racial rant. She notices both Hank and Atticus there and becomes distraught at what she sees as their violation of her moral trust in them.
Lee’s device here, instead of a trial, is a long dialectic discourse between Jean Louise and Atticus, in which Atticus attempts to rationalize a two-handed approach to race relations in Maycomb, thus in the South in general. For Jean Louise, her conscience has set her against family and town, her quandary being how she could ever live with herself faced with the prospect of residing once more in Maycomb and married to Hank.

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Good literature and philosophy exist in parallel universes, and while literature rarely wishes to provide the answers that philosophy must, it invariably points the way to such possibilities. Ms. Lee knows this, I think, and makes the best literary use of the South’s conundrums in suggesting a balance point, albeit tentative, to life there.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

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