Go Set A Watchman- Harper Lee

Go Set A Watchman (Jul)

Millions of words have been written about this book already- and it’s only been out a couple of days. It’s a book with an uncertain provenance, published at a time when America is debating its racial politics and one that tears down a literary hero of millions. Of course people would write about it. In this review, I want to just focus on the book; others have written about the history contained in it with much more eloquence than I think I could.

Although this is sort of marketed as a sequel- Scout, now Jean Louise, is home for her annual two week trip from New York to her home town of Maycomb, twenty years after To Kill A Mockingbird takes place- it’s also made clear in the media that this was a first draft of sorts. I only wish my first drafts were as good as this. If you take out the Atticus controversy (which I’ll get to in a minute), it’s a very good book. I read it in a day and I enjoyed it. Not as much as Mockingbird, but it’s an interesting novel exploring a particularly dark period of 20th century American history. It’s very definitely written in a similar voice to Mockingbird; after all, Jean Louise is still Scout and there are flashes of ‘little’ Scout throughout the novel.

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room: Atticus. He’s still Atticus- measured, devoted to his family, calm in the face of anger. But he’s undoubtedly racist and patrician when it comes to his town’s black population (although it must be said, most of the characters use language that makes us wince in the present day.) His attitude horrifies Jean Louise, who rails against him. This story is as much about a child learning that her beloved father is human, fallible, as much as anything else. We, like Scout, have always seen Atticus through rose-tinted glasses and, as the scales fall from her eyes they also fall from ours. For a lot of readers, Scout’s pain is theirs.

Race is the central issue in the novel; it’s set in the 50s, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle- particularly in the South- of black people to achieve equality. Jean Louise is visiting her very southern hometown from cosmopolitan New York and is aghast to find segregation affecting everyone she knows. There’s a particularly heartbreaking scene between Calpurnia and Jean Louise, which I found further complicated my own feelings about what was happening in the story. The court case from Mockingbird is mentioned, but slightly different, and there are far fewer black characters in this novel- and those who are aren’t particularly positive. I admit that this book is making me want to go and educate myself better on the Civil Rights movement. My school memories are sketchy and I need to know more.

What’s interesting is how Lee took this book away, worked on it for a couple of years and then came back with the novel that made her famous. I enjoyed the flashbacks and can see why the publishers wanted a book about Scout’s childhood. It’s also fascinating to see how all the characters were developed- Atticus became more liberal, Calpurnia became more of a real character, rather than a sketch, Jem and Dill- bit players in Jean Louise’s memory- became proper little boys.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but I understand why people might not want to buy or read the book. I would say though, if you can, get hold of a copy. If nothing else, it will make you think.

Have you read it? Will you?

Buy the book here. (affiliate link- see why I use them here)

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