Book Reviews, Historical

Review – ‘Go Set A Watchman’ – Harper Lee

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55 years after audiences first met the characters of Scout, Jem, Atticus, Calpurnia, and more in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, Harper Lee’s new (old) novel Go Set A Watchman has hit the shelves. This marks the first time in a long time that I have been so excited for a book to be published that I preordered it, and I awaited the book’s arrival eagerly. Although I don’t think Go Set A Watchman is as moving as its predecessor and despite the story being extremely simple, I did enjoy the book and the opportunity to revisit characters like Scout.

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 22.03.29Go Set A Watchman is set in 1950s in Maycomb, that is, two decades after the story in To Kill A Mockingbird. Scout now goes by her proper name Jean Louise and lives in New York but has returned to Maycomb to visit her elderly father, Atticus. However, while staying in Maycomb, Jean Louise’s saintly view of her father is shattered as she learns that he is a member of a racist group opposing the end of segregation. Over the course of Go Set A Watchman, Jean Louise grapples with this revelation, and must decide whether she continues following her father’s word as gospel or stands firm in her own view. In other words, whether she is able to stand firm in her convictions knowing that the man she most admires disagrees with her.

Although Go Set A Watchman sounds like a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird – and in a way, is just that – it is more of a draft/alternative. There are mere references to what would become central storylines in To Kill a Mockingbird, like Tom Robinson’s trial, which has one vital difference in this book. Furthermore, an equally vital component of To Kill A Mockingbird, Boo Radley, is not even mentioned in this book. That means that, for those readers like me who were eagle-eyed and waiting for references of what happened to certain characters or to read about Jean Louise’s memories again, there would have been some disappointment. Even more upsetting though, was what felt like the mere seconds that was given to Calpurnia’s reappearance. Calpurnia, who is such a personality in To Kill A Mockingbird, barely spoke, and let’s not even talk about Jem. However, there were some new characters like Henry, or Hank, and some new stories that entertain. I particularly enjoyed the story about Hank, Scout, and her ‘falsies’, even if it wasn’t really a part of the main story, it contributed and took me back to Scout’s familiar narrative.

Harper-Lee-UKAnother aspect of Go Set A Watchman that you may have heard of recently regards what feels like changes being made to characters that go right to the core of how we see them. For one, Scout, our dear Scout, is no longer ‘Scout’ but now Jean Louise, the name she shoved aside as a child. Her spunky, rebellious attitude has faded, and Scout – I mean – Jean Louise now wears dresses. The closest we even get to dungarees in Go Set A Watchman is slacks. However, to be fair, people do change and so I accept Scout’s superficial changes because at heart, Jean Louise is still our Scout. Her perspective in life is exactly what I would have expected her to grow up thinking. She is frequently referred to as ‘colour-blind’ and struggles to live in a world and with people who aren’t, and struggles to deal with the realisation that the people closest to her and who made her who she is are now revealed to be different to what she thought they were.

On the other hand, both ours and Jean Louise’s vision of Atticus is torn apart in this book. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus is different to all the racist, prejudiced people of Maycomb. Scout in the narrator of the story but Atticus is the hero. In this book,  Jean Louise stumbles upon Atticus attending a Citizens’ Council meeting in the Maycomb Court, the same place where as a child she saw her courage defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape by a white woman even though he knew he’d been “licked” before the case began, and introduce and listen to white supremacist speakers campaigning against the work of the NAACP, the end of segregation, and the right to vote of black Americans. Although passages such as reading extracts from the speech, or hearing Atticus’ remarks about why he wants to keep segregation, were sickening, Harper Lee wrote the book so masterfully that I felt the same betrayal as Jean Louise. We are made to understand Jean Louise so deeply that we feel like retching and screaming and fighting with her, and that, to me, is a sign of brilliant writing. In fact, many writers cannot achieve that same level of connection between their readers and characters, but I felt as if my own hero had stabbed me in the back.

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 22.06.20Recently, there has been much whispering about Go Set A Watchman and whether this portrayal of Atticus as a racist will ruin the experience of To Kill A Mockingbird for readers. In response, I believe that this is a mistaken belief. When I first began reading the passages where Atticus is shown to be a racist, I too feared whether I could ever enjoy the story again, but when I reached the scenes where Jean Louise discusses her feelings with everybody from Hank, her Uncle Jack, to Atticus himself, I felt like Harper Lee was taking us on a journey of discovery with Jean Louise. The main journey in this book is not about how Atticus ‘became’ racist, but is about Jean Louise’s journey to independence and confidence in her own beliefs. As Uncle Jack puts it, Jean Louise must destroy the vision of her father as a God in order to know herself, and must find her own sense of morality.

Still, I think that Go Set A Watchman also makes an interesting point about racism in society. Atticus is largely a good guy, at least in To Kill A Mockingbird, but in Go Set A Watchman, he is the same man. He has done the same great things, he is loved by many, but he holds these prejudiced views. Uncle Jack makes the point that Atticus has always lived by the letter of the law, but I feel that what Harper Lee may have been pointing out to us is that the law is not enough to put an end to racism and prejudice. Atticus and Jean Louise talk about a slow end to segregation and racism being necessary, but Lee appears to dispute this. We must try to put an end to racism in all parts of society and our lives, not simply relying on the law to do our work for us.

To conclude, which I feel I must do in order to stop myself rambling for days on end, I think Go Set A Watchman is an enjoyable, interesting book and that Harper Lee was truly successful and bringing us into what felt like a close relationship with the characters. I don’t think that Go Set A Watchman would have have been anywhere near as successful as To Kill A Mockingbird if it had been published 55 years ago, and I am thankful that it wasn’t, or we wouldn’t have had all of the beautiful, complex stories that Lee gave us, but as a (sort of) sequel, it works. It works because we can revisit characters and places that we have seen before, and it works because we see Scout undertake another massively significant journey of discovery.

Have you read Go Set A Watchman? What did you think? Comment below.

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5 thoughts on “Review – ‘Go Set A Watchman’ – Harper Lee”

  1. Totally hesitant to check this one out. I’ve heard some pretty nasty things in regards to not only the publication of the book, but also it’s quality. Either way, I’m sure I’ll make it around to it one day.

    Thanks for sharing! If you’re ever interested in some other great book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!

      1. I enjoyed it mostly because I liked revisiting Scout and seeing her as an adult, but I missed the variety of storylines that Mockingbird had. The only storyline here was Scout/Atticus. Thank you for your comment!

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