Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

I'll never forget the first time I read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It was an assigned reading for my high school English class, and I was less than enthusiastic about reading it. Little did I know that it would become one of my all time favorite novels. Unlike some of the other assigned readings that I laboriously slugged through (I'm talking about you, The Canterbury Tales), I was completely enamored with Lee's novel and finished reading it well before the prescribed completion date. Told from the perspective of a young girl, Scout, Mockingbird was a riveting story that tackled issues of race and justice in a way that I easily digested. A recent re-reading of the book only further confirmed my admiration. There is no doubt in my mind that To Kill A Mockingbird is a perfect novel.

And so it was with anxious excitement that I began reading Harper Lee's long lost sequel to Mockingbird. The details around the publication of Go Set A Watchman have been mired in controversy since the novel was announced in February. The manuscript of the novel was discovered by Lee's attorney last year. Written in the mid 1950's, Watchman was actually submitted to Lee's publisher as a first attempt at writing a novel. Her publisher was attracted to the many flashbacks of Scout's childhood and encouraged Lee to write a novel from that point of view. From this manuscript, To Kill a Mocking Bird was born. So, Go Set A Watchman was written before Mockingbird, but is chronologically a sequel to the acclaimed novel.

Go Set A Watchman follows a twenty-something year old Scout, now going by her real name Jean Louise, traveling by train from New York to her childhood home of Maycomb County, Alabama. She is the definition of a modern woman. Unlike many of her female classmates, and to the dismay of her Aunt Alexandra, Jean Louise did not settle down and get married after school. Counter to traditional southern culture, she attended a women's college and moved to New York to work. The book follows her return home and her struggle to reconcile her own values with the with the customs and expectations of those who live there.

There are many vestiges that point to this novel being the first version of To Kill A Mockingbird. In fact, some passages read nearly word for word in each book, especially in descriptions of places and people. A few inconsistencies about Tom Robinson's trial further confirm this point. Still, Go Set A Watchman, is very much its own story.  At the start of this story, Atticus Finch, the infallible father of Jean Louise, is much as he was in the previous novel. While arthritis has slowed him down, the seventy two year old is still the trustworthy lawyer of the town and continues to be Jean Louise's moral compass. He continues his practice with the assistance of Henry Clinton, a young man who became his protege after the untimely death of Jem. But the 1950's were a strange time of social evolution that made men of great integrity do unimaginable things.

Much has been publicized about Atticus's change of character. Without spoiling the story, I will confirm that Jean Louise witnesses her father involved in acts that shatter his pristine reputation. Watchman alludes to his past as an advocate for justice and equality, but does not go into a significant amount of detail.  Because To Kill A Mockingbird cemented Atticus's reputation as a saintly figure, the reader is able to share the disgust, outrage, and betrayal that Jean Louise feels. Controversy aside, I can completely understand and appreciate the need for Atticus's fall from grace. As Jean Louise observes her father and his companions, she is surprised by the men she sees. They are not the "trash" of the county, but "Men of substance and character, responsible men, good men. Men of all varieties and reputations."Perhaps the most disturbing part about this revelation is that the Atticus Finch of this novel is still the same character we read about before. He is still kind, dependable, soft spoken. He still cares deeply for his family. He is still a courier of justice. By making our literary hero Atticus Finch involved in racist acts, Lee comments on the instability of mortal idols who can not live up to the high standards we place upon them. If Atticus Finch is susceptible to the ignorance of racism, then who is immune to it?

Go Set A Watchman is certainly a novel worthy of acclaim on its own merit. Beyond the obvious theme of disillusionment with idols, Lee touches on gender roles, grief, political process, and self discovery. I was amazed by how timely some of the political discussion was. The novel is set after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education. As such, the characters deal with the political and social fallout of that decision. With the court recently passing more landmark decisions on social issues that divide the nation (healthcare, marriage equality), Lee's novel could not be any more relevant. In her signature lyrical prose, Lee's characters discuss the effects of a court ruling and what the true role of the establishment is in terms of the 10th amendment. Readers are never told to think one way or another on the issue, but they are encouraged to think for themselves and form their own opinion. While different from To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set A Watchman is equally effective as a riveting work that speaks to timeless themes of justice and social morality. The novel only further cements Harper Lee's place as an icon of American literature. The issues faced in both novels are issues we will continue to face and issues that will continue to be written about. As Lee eloquently puts it, "As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he'll look for his lessons."

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2015, 16)

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6 Responses to “Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee”

  1. I am so glad to have read this review! I have heard so much buzz about this novel, and rightly so because it is a sequel to an amazing first book. I didn't know much about what it was about but I have been working to find a spoiler free review like this one. I wasn't crazy about To Kill a Mockingbird and still am not - but I did like it. And I will add this one to my TBR. It sounds intriguing.

    Great review! And you should think about getting something called Bloglovin. It makes it really easy for other bloggers to follow your reviews! If you do get it, stop by my site and let me know so I will follow you ^^

    Check out my recent review: http://olivia-savannah.blogspot.nl/2015/07/harry-potter-and-sorcerers-stone-review.html

  2. Thanks Olivia! I'll admit, To Kill A Mockingbird becomes more meaningful as you age. I read it and was impressed by it in high school, but a recent re-read of the novel left me with a deeper appreciation for Lee and her writing.

  3. Great review! I have heard so much buzz about this book...even that it's all a hoax!
    Not sure if I'm going to get to it...but your review was so enlightening...It's now on my TBR list.

    1. I hope to read your thoughts on it when you get around to reading!

  4. Excellent review, appreciate that you didn't "give away the store"! Persuaded me to get the book (had been on the fence). Loved the quote from Lee...so sadly true.

    1. Thanks for the compliment! I feel like this is such an important book for our time. It amazes me how true the words ring, especially all these years after they were written.


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