By Heather A.
2 out of 5 stars ★★☆☆☆
From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch–“Scout”–returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past–a journey that can be guided only by one’s conscience.
Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor and effortless precision–a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to an American classic.
***The opinions expressed in this post, and other posts on Around the World in 80 Books, are solely my own and do not reflect my employer, family, or associates.***
[SPOILER ALERT] [SPOILER ALERT] [SPOILER ALERT]
This book has been controversial since its announcement in February 2015. As literary nerds, we rejoiced at the thought that we could see the beloved characters of Atticus, Scout, Jem, etc., together again in Maycomb. It has been marketed as a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, so of course I re-read Mockingbird because I hadn’t touched the book since high school. What I learned while reading Mockingbird was that perspective changes everything. In high school, I couldn’t have cared less for this book. It was required reading, but now that I have some additional life experience, I was able to appreciate it much more. The reason I’m bringing this up is because those characters are iconic and Go Set a Watchman destroys them. See our reaction to the first chapter here.
I want to discuss this book in two parts: one, from the perspective that this is a sequel, and two, from the perspective that this is a first draft. I feel that these two points of view influence readers and how they approach the text. I saw one review that was saying you can’t understand this book without reading Mockingbird–obviously. Any way you look at it, they are companion novels, but I’m suggesting that a sequel should be published, and a first draft of a novel should not be.
The real meat of the story happens when Jean Louise “Scout” finds a pamphlet against the NAACP in her home and her father and potential husband Henry go off to attend a Concerned Citizen’s Meeting in the courthouse. Scout follows them and watches part of the meeting from the balcony (sound familiar?). This is where we listen to some anti-NAACP evangelist speak at length about how the black people are not fit for office and the NAACP is ruining Southern society. It’s quite horrible to read, and Scout is equally horrified because she sees her father and potential husband listening and agreeing with the evangelist. So she leaves quickly and goes home and falls asleep crying because her idol has just been crushed.
The next day, Scout confronts Henry first, she says she can’t marry him because he is on the Concerned Citizen’s Council. But Scout’s real heartache is with her father, blaming him for raising her without a trace of animosity toward black people, meanwhile, he’s been harboring his feelings all his life. She thinks to herself, “That is the way I was raised, by a black woman and a white man.” She brings up the rape case (from Mockingbird) that he took on. He only did it for the sake of justice and not to help the accused. He’s also doing something similar in this book. The grandson of their former housekeeper, Calpurina, is going to trail for vehicular manslaughter. (I’ll discuss this more later.) Atticus offers no defense except that black people are not ready to lead or hold office. The black people are not as established as the white members of the community to hold official positions and so the NAACP is trying to ruin Maycomb society by saying otherwise. Basically he’s not racist, but he’s doing things for racist reasons.
So she gets upset and goes home to cry again. She tells her aunt that she’s cutting her vacation short. But then she speaks with her Uncle Jack who makes her remember that Atticus is her moral center and the only family she has, basically. And that leads Scout to go running back in his arms.
YUP. That happens.
I’m giving all of this important back story so it will be easier to analyze some of the passages and understand my position that this is a first draft and not something that needed to be published.
- Iconic characters from an alternate universe.
- Acceptance of racist behavior.
- The flashbacks to Scout’s childhood were the strongest of all the scenes.
- The manuscript in itself does not offer much in the way of character development or plot.
As you can tell from above, Atticus is a bigoted old man. His position regarding the “negroes” place in society did not change in all of his life. And the fact that the accused in this new case is Calpurina’s grandson plays no part into his life and how he views “the other.” Scout takes a scene to visit Cal, but Cal refuses to speak to Scout, who at first doesn’t understand Cal’s position. It’s only later Scout realizes why Cal acted as she did when Scout finds out about her father. Cal had cut ties with the family when she retired.
The fact that Scout forgives her entire family for essentially accepting Atticus’s behavior is appalling. “This is just how it is” is not a valid argument! Scout has a visceral reaction to seeing Atticus and Henry at the meeting, but she just forgives them because she loves Atticus too much. I don’t buy it. I saw Scout’s position throughout and was on her side until that moment.
The flashbacks to Scout’s childhood were interesting. There’s one in particular that I find parallels this situation. Scout thinks she’s pregnant because she was kissed by a boy. She’s so ignorant of how sex and pregnancy work that she spends 9 months agonizing over it and finally decides to jump off a water tower to spare the shame for her family. Henry talks her down and she goes to speak with Calpurina who tells her how it works. “You’re the dumbest smart person I know,” Cal says. Unless told otherwise, Scout will believe anything. The same could be said for this situation with her father, where she didn’t realize how he was until it was thrown in her face.
Another reason I believe this to be only a first draft, and not worthy of public consumption is because there’s no character development. It’s all just a “day in the life” snapshot in Maycomb since Scout left. No one changes. If we compare it to Mockingbird, the morals and general attitude toward “others” is hostile and obviously racially biased. The Mockingbird lens in which we see the world is by 6-8-year-old Scout so we should take that with a grain of salt that it’s more hostile now than before. It’s just that we’re more aware of it now–which doesn’t make it any better.
The reason the language is the way it is in Watchman is because we’re looking at a draft that was written in the 60’s and has not been edited since. By the way, each time I’ve used the phrase “black people,” they were always referred to as “Negroes” in the book. How we see the characters is how they originally appeared in the author’s mind. It’s unsettling. We’ve spent the past 50 years loving and celebrating Mockingbird as a great American novel, and the first draft falls woefully short of expectations.
After having read the book, I’m conflicted on whether to recommend this to people. It’s unpleasant. It’s vile. It takes your favorite characters and makes them unrecognizable. But since it’s out there, how can you resist the pull of it? Is it really as bad as I say? There must be some redeemable quality, right? That was my line of thinking, too. But if we’re debating over whether a book is bad enough to be read, I think that lends some weight to the discussion.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
For thus hath the Lord said unto me,
Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.– Isaiah, Verse 6