Aside from my love of fantasy novels and scifi literature, my favorite book of fiction is To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve read it several times. Listened to its audiobook several times. And every time I learn to love its unequivocal brilliance and intricacy more and more, as well as finding new passages and themes to unravel. It is, in my opinion, the strongest example of the Great American Novel. It’s a book I hold very dear, and whose characters I regard more highly than some of my associates. I’ve long resigned myself to the notion that Harper Lee never followed up the novel with a sequel, and I’ve accepted that the characters probably just did more of the same after the events of Arthur Radley’s rescue of Scout and Jem; learning new lessons along the way as the seasons rolled on by. I was simultaneously terrified and ecstatic at the discovery and announcement that we’d be getting Go Set a Watchman, set 2 decades after To Kill a Mockingbird. I had to get my hands on it. But I was worried what this future would entail, especially noting it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird.
Before I get any further into this review, let me just mention a few things. Yes, I enjoyed Go Set a Watchman very much. No, it doesn’t compare in quality or overall message to the first novel. It doesn’t change my opinion, appreciation, or respect for To Kill a Mockingbird, or it’s characters. Instead, Go Set a Watchman adds only more depth to the novel, and gives me another vantage point to appreciate it’s profundity.
That’s not to say that the book didn’t throw me through a few loops. I scratched my head at times, gaped about at others, and was stunned for pretty much the rest of the time reading the novel. This review does contain spoilers from here on out.
Since it’s announcement, Go Set a Watchman has been mired in controversy. I won’t get into the thick of how ethical the finding of this lost novel was. It’s done. The book is in the hands of the public. The right people are getting paid. I hope Harper Lee wasn’t taken advantage of in her old age, as many suppose was the case.
Another controversial point was brought to attention when the book was released last month. In Go Set a Watchman, it seems plain as day that the Atticus Finch we know and love, moral compass though he is, is a racist. Jean-Louise discovers the fact when she finds him attending a special town meeting that involved several white-supremacist speakers. The novel revolves around how she learns to reconcile that notion with the man she knew growing up. She can’t. The image she had of her father is shattered. And the reader can’t help but feel let down as well. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating.
But I truly don’t believe, by the end of the novel, that he is an outright and hateful racist. His attendance at this meeting, we learn, is a way of saving face with the town, as well as getting political and strategic knowledge for his court cases in the future. At least, this is what he tells Scout. He does, however, deem segregation appropriate in Maycomb, something Jean-Louise simply cannot fathom.
Go Set a Watchman is a book I’ll have to read again to grasp more fully. Its message isn’t entirely made clear. What I glean from it though is that Jean-Louise placed Atticus on a pedestal, and saw him as the very image of morality, a code of honor so infallible she’d be more likely to say “what would Atticus do,” than Jesus. This was the moment in her life she first realized that her father was simply a man, and not the god she made him out to be; that he was capable of erring.
For a book written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and then never published, it’s easy to point at it and say it’s not a finished story. Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it was never touched after her editors encouraged her to write a piece about Scout and Jem’s childhood years. It isn’t as refined, obviously. And her writing ability grew greatly in the process of creating To Kill a Mockingbird. But it’s clear that this draft (if it can be called that) is better than many writers’ finished works. What struck me as most impressive about this book was how little her characters and settings changed when writing a book 20 years earlier. There are some big continuity errors, yes. I just sort of overlooked those though, and it all fits together like a bigger story.
Reading this at long last is a bittersweet experience. It conveyed just about the same emotions to me as a bad breakup would have, even though I know in the long run it’d be for the best. Jean-Louise’ remixed understanding of the world she lived in and the town she left behind is a shattering experience, one I’m glad I experienced, and one that must have taken some serious chops to write. This is a book that will sit heavy on my mind for many days to come, methinks.
Grab To Kill a Mockingbird in:
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Harper Lee Collection: To Kill a Mockingbird + Go Set a Watchman (Dual-Slip Case)
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8 thoughts on “Go Set a Watchman (BOOK REVIEW)”
Awesome review. I have severely mixed feelings about this book and you completely summed up why.
It doesn’t feel complete. I almost feel like it was an alternate universe to Mockingbird. I can see what Harper was trying to do with the book, but she never really gets there.
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Glad I could help. It is a good book, but not great. If only it had been polished after the fact.
When I finished “Go Set a Watchman” I felt this deep sadness inside for a few days. I laugh at the critiques of this book that say that Harper Lee just couldn’t do it a second time. If she could write a book that could penetrate my emotions and command them to feel only for her characters and her story, I don’t count that as a failure. I don’t feel like “Go Set a Watchman” was written for entertainment, and a lot of people forget that. My take on it’s embodiment; on it’s meaning, was akin to the feeling of that time in your life that your parents tell you that no, they can’t be as open-minded as you always believed they were. It was a little hard for me to understand why Atticus couldn’t see colored people worth having the same rights as everybody else, and most of me thinks it’s not because they’re colored, it’s because they’re poor, and Atticus will fight for the poor’s right to legality, but that doesn’t mean he’ll muss his reputation by mixing with the trash, the roaches of the town. But it was easier to think of it in terms of the 21st century, with issues of sexual orientation. My family has always been taught that everyone is loved by God equally, no matter what the sin, the gender, the choices that have been made. And my grandma believes that, wholeheartedly, but she does not believe that homosexual marriages should happen, and she does not believe that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, or asexual is not a sin. She even sat me down and told me that she “knew we thought that stuff was okay” but she read bible verses to me, trying to make me see. The difference between my grandma and Atticus, though, is that Atticus can see more than his opinions, can recognize that Jean Louise is stronger because she has the courage to believe something that the south cannot. He sees that power in her and is proud of it, even if he can’t seem to shake loose his fear of a shattered reputation for himself.
Thank you for this review and perspective on the book. I have not had the courage to pick it up yet. I’m waiting for the publicity around it to die a bit.
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Oh, you’re quite welcome.
“Mockingbird”, too, is a seminal influence in my life, and directly influenced my career choice and current role within the legal profession. When I was first starting out, I’d use Gregory Peck’s performance in the courtroom scenes of the movie as a template for how to speak.
Having read the sequel, it’s clear to me why Lee never wanted the book published: the last 3 chapters.
Most of the book is quite good, but it is raw and cutting edge, showing her family still bleeding and reeling from the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Ed. You couldn’t portray the South, in 1957, with such brutal honesty and truth. The book would have been protested and banned. Lee’s publisher was correct to tell her to rewrite it by setting it into the past and turning it into a fairy tale: then the book becomes “Look how stupid and ill-informed we used to be, and don’t we do better now?”, rather than “OMFG, these people are still painfully stupid and backward.” “Mockingbird was beloved by all, “Watchman” would have been reviled by half the country.
But “Watchman”‘s real sin is that, at the end, Scout comes to *understand* her father’s views. All it takes is Uncle Jack (a terribly written character) to literally punch her in the mouth, say “Well, yeah, but would you want your daughter to marry one?!”, and then espouse John Birch-style political thought that we haven’t heard since… well, the GOP debate the other night. To which Scout’s response is… “Oh. Oh! You’re right!”
I don’t think Harper Lee agreed with what she wrote in those final 3 chapters; certainly by the early 1960s she was probably terribly embarrassed to have realized she once thought that way. And that’s why I think the book was unpublished and unpublishable, until now.
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Thanks for the comment. I agree with pretty much all of this. I believe Scout should have understood her father, but for a different reason than that, obviously.