The universal theme at heart of Go Set a Watchman

Vintage cars in Monroeville
Vintage cars in Monroeville

Monroeville is proper small-town Alabama. A restaurant owner looked at me with shock when I asked for coffee at 3pm, pointing to a switched-off percolator machine.

But this is the hometown of Harper Lee, and a small cottage industry has grown up around the author. Last night more than 400 people queued for copies of her new/old novel and the town has turned back the clock to 1955 with vintage cars and characters in costume to celebrate the event.

Everyone here has a reason to dismiss the New York Times review (which found a bigoted, racist Atticus Finch in the new book). This is uncomfortable territory for the town which provided the model for Lee’s fictional Maycomb.

But at the same time, maybe race isn’t the real focus of the new book. (Disclaimer – I have yet to read it.) I am particularly struck by what Wayne Flynt, a historian and friend of the author, said this morning when discussing the legacy of – first – To Kill a Mockingbird.

“It has transcended race in the South. It has become a universal book about tolerance. Just like in 50 years I predict, Go Set a Watchman will have transcended race and it will be a book about passages, about how in all of our families, if our parents do not abuse us, they are perfect between six and nine, and deeply flawed between 16 and 30.”

Wayne Flint
Wayne Flint

In some ways, it is the dilemma faced by many people as they grow up – more particularly for those raised in the segregation era South: Leave and never come back; or stay and fight for change.

“Nelle leaves and she never really comes back. Just because she is here don’t think she ever came back. She never wanted to come back. If you don’t believe me just read Go Set a Watchman.”


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