The book came out just as I was moving, and of course I forgot which box it was in. Finally I’ve read it, and then I needed to mull it over. I thought it was a good sequel – and yes, I know it was written first – to To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I have always loved even though it made me cry.
If you haven’t read it yet, read no farther, because I will mention details that will spoil the adventure for you.
I’ve heard complaints that the saintly Atticus as portrayed in the first book was ruined. I disagree. One reviewer stated that the first book was a little girl learning that her father was God, and the second a woman learning that he wasn’t. This is true, but it’s not the entire book in either case. Atticus’s character doesn’t change between the books, not a single iota. Our knowledge of him, however, deepens in the second. Yes, he attends the meeting where considerable hatred of black people is spewed, He does not, however, join in the spewing. And later he explains to Jean Louise that the person doing most of it came from elsewhere, and attends all such meetings saying the same hateful things. Atticus is quite clear he doesn’t agree, but feels he can best serve the community on the inside of this committee. He does, however, have the parochial attitude towards black people that pretty much anyone in the rural South at that time had. While he doesn’t hate them, he in no way considers them equal to white people. The book is very plain, spending pages discussing it, that Jean Louise is unusual for being ‘color-blind.’
Jean Louise is an outsider. She doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, not in Maycomb, not in New York. All of Maycomb knows this and expects odd behavior from her, explained in their minds as “She’s a Finch.” The entire Finch family is known for being eccentric. And right here is the crux of this book. In Maycomb, your entire life is determined by your Place. You might not like your Place, but you can’t get out of it, and trying to – even in a tiny, well-meant fashion, like a black man trying to be nice to a white girl he pitied, can be punishable by death. In addition, your Place is determined by the circumstances into which you were born, which Henry stated beautifully to Jean Louise, that if he ever stepped out of line, people would shake their head and say that was the Trash coming out in him.
No matter what he does, or how educated he becomes, Henry will always be Trash. No matter what she does, Jean Louise is a Finch, and will be seen as eccentric even if she isn’t. For example, the swimming with their clothes on turned into skinny-dipping in broad daylight to the people of the town, and nothing will convince them otherwise. In one way this gives her more freedom, because any odd thing she does will just be chalked up to Finch Eccentricity.
Her Place in Maycomb dove-tails with her father’s. While he can effect change in the community from the inside, she can change it from the outside. She, by her eccentric Finch ways and her New York ideas, and her color-blindness, can cause the community’s comfort zone to expand. Henry is being groomed to continue Atticus’s work after he’s gone. Even as Trash, if he’s careful, he’ll have an expanded Place, thanks to Atticus, leading the community into the future from the inside. They have both been set as watchmen.
“Love who you will, but marry your own kind,” said the aunt. This is harsh, but in its way true, although the definition of ‘your own kind’ is different in other places than it was there. To Aunt Alexandrea, it means someone of your own social status. To most of us these days, it means someone who shares your values, world view, and your passion in life.
At the end of the book, Jean Louise has shed the last bit of childhood, and can see her father as a human being, with faults and nobility mixed, like everyone. She also sees she has a Place in Maycomb, if she chooses to take it. She can, and probably will for a bit, go back to New York. Sooner or later she will return to Maycomb, and her Place in it. I don’t think she’ll ever marry. Jean Louise Finch is unique, and no one is truly her own kind.