[This review was previously published on the excellent website of Tubby and Coo’s, the extraordinary New Orleans mid-city bookstore.]
Go Set a Watchman is set to be the best selling book of 2015. Not only is it a sequel (somewhat) to To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee’s first published book in 55 years, the controversy surrounding this book is compelling. Some are saying that it should have never been published and that this is only a money grabbing scheme. Others are talking about authors’ rights and questioning whether Harper Lee herself even wanted to publish this book. Outside of the publishing controversy, there has also been debate on the content of the book. The most popular question surrounding the content of the book itself is whether it is a first draft of Mockingbird or a completely separate book. Brilliant Books in Traverse City, MI is even offering refunds to customers, citing misleading marketing and stating on their website, “‘Go Set a Watchman’ is not a sequel or prequel to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Neither is it a new book. It is a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected.” Although I wouldn’t go so far as to offer refunds based on misleading marketing, after reading the book, I do agree that it feels more like a character study draft than a final, polished novel.
Considering this book was written in the 1950s, it’s uncanny how relevant it is to today’s world. In a lot of ways, it made me realize that we have not come as far as I had thought. The characters talk about history repeating itself, and I can’t help but think that’s happening yet again with the diversity and civil rights issues that have cropped up recently. My favorite quote from the book is an example of how it’s still timely:
“I wonder what would happen if [we] had a ‘Be Kind’ [to diverse people] Week? If just for one week, [we] would show them some simple, impartial courtesy. I wonder what would happen. […] Have you ever been snubbed? Do you know how it feels? […] A real good snub makes you feel like you’re too nasty to associate with people. How they’re as good as they are now is a mystery to me, after a hundred years of systematic denial that they’re human. I wonder what kind of miracle we could work with a week’s decency.”
Go Set a Watchman is 100% character driven (there is no plot to speak of) and is about a grown Jean Louise (Scout) struggling with who her father (Atticus Finch) really is. Similar to most readers of Mockingbird, Scout has always upheld Atticus as a sort of God, a modern day hero, her conscience linked with his; he could do no wrong. Although opinions about Atticus’s racism in Watchman have been flying, to me, this book is really a new adult novel about Scout discovering, and coming to grips with, the fact that Atticus is human and makes mistakes just like anyone else. He is a white male living in the South in the 1950s, and with that comes certain opinions of the time. Since Mockingbird was told from Scout’s point of view, readers and fans of the classic novel experience this discovery process about Atticus with Scout. Yes, the issue surrounding this discovery, and consequent “falling” of Atticus, is race. However, it in no way changed the way I felt about these characters.
Watchman felt much more like a draft versus a finished, polished novel, and in reading it, I feel like this was Harper Lee’s experiment in discovering these characters through writing them. If you read this book, you have to think about the fact that, although it’s set after Mockingbird, it was written before and prior to Harper Lee deciding what she really wanted these characters to be and to represent. If nothing else, it is an interesting study of a writer’s process in discovering character.
This book is not as much about racial issues (although that is the catalyst) as it is about a young woman in her late 20s coming to grips with her life, the people in it, and the place she’s from, and coming to the realization that you can still have people in your life with differing opinions and be okay. In that aspect, and if you read it as a coming-to-adulthood, new adult story, and not as a companion to Mockingbird, you will like it. It was a bit slow until about 120 pages in, and after that, it was mainly dialogue – Scout having conversations with different people regarding her differing opinions and trying to understand theirs. There are many poignant quotes that echo today’s racial struggles, and I liked the book as a commentary on a young adult coming to grips with life and people close to her having differing opinions. A lot of the things that Scout goes through are things that I also went through as a young adult. Scout’s struggle is a classic Southern one: you live in the South, you move away, and when you come back, you realize the place you loved so much is not what you thought. Many people should be able to relate to her experience.
If you read this book purely as a sequel to Mockingbird, you will likely be disappointed. It will shatter your views of the characters, just as it shatters Scout’s. However, if you read this book with the new adult bent in mind and as an author’s experiment in character discovery, you’ll find it interesting, educational, and definitely worth your time.