Review: Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

Review of Go Set a Watchman

Like every other English major on the planet, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Go Set a Watchman. Unlike every other English major, I didn’t hate it. I actually enjoyed reading it, even. Several passages drew an intense emotional response from me (Sorry, Chick-fil-a lady, who was just trying to give me a mint, it was a tense moment for me). I adored Harper Lee’s writing; her sense of place and ability to write about the thing we call home has no equal. I enjoyed meeting some new characters and seeing how Jean Louise has grown up. It tugged at my heartstrings to see some familiar characters, too, and to see how their stories have developed.

It’s a gift to see Scout growing up into Jean Louise. In so many ways, Jean Louise is still Scout—perceptive, full of life, and totally unable to see things any way but her own. So of course we love her, rough edges and all. Back in Maycomb for a visit from New York, Jean Louise finds herself not at home anymore—both literally, because her childhood home is now an ice cream parlor, and emotionally, spiritually, because so much about her town and the people in it seem to have changed. She feels out of place in all of Maycomb, so much so that she questions how much she’s changed since being in New York.

Review of Go Set a Watchman

And then there’s that moment when she sees Atticus fail, for the first time ever in her eyes. There are several chapters in which Jean Louise wanders around Maycomb, tortured and amazed at what her town has become, what her people have become. It’s in these chapters that we really get to know Uncle Jack, who is my favorite character in this book. Obscure and intellectual, Uncle Jack is this other figure Jean Louise can turn to when she can’t stand to look at her father. I love how weird he is, and how he helps guide Jean Louise through this crisis of identity and place.

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The biggest problem with this novel is that it isn’t really a novel. We have to read Go Set a Watchman for what it is—a rough (very rough) draft for To Kill a Mockingbird. The publishers really didn’t make it clear that Watchman was never meant to be a sequel to Mockingbird, so I can totally understand why readers would be disappointed in it. Go Set a Watchman doesn’t have a great plot, it doesn’t have great character development, nothing landmark really happens. What is great, though, are the flashbacks Jean Louise has, and that’s what Harper Lee’s original publishers wanted to see more of, too. (Also, can we just think for a moment about how Harper Lee’s rough drafts are better than pretty much anything else? (#fangirl) Even as a rough draft, this book has good bones.)

But despite all this, I still think there are valuable things to be taken from Go Set a Watchman. Everyone has a point in their lives where they see their parents’ imperfections and are finally able to recognize them as such, and this book has a lot to say about how we react to that moment. I was glad that Lee gave both Henry and Atticus the space to explain their side of things. Their reasons for their racism are so telling about race relations in the 1950s, and how white Americans understood their place and power in society. I think perhaps the explanations Henry and Atticus give would not be all that different from the explanations white people would give today if confronted with their racism. At the end of the book, Uncle Jack explains to Jean Louise how she can manage to live in a world where she and her father disagree on something so fundamental as civil rights, and his lesson is completely applicable to our lives today. “It’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago,” he says, “It’s hard to see what we are.” And he’s right—as a person, as a country, it is very hard to see what we are. It’s hard to stop that gut reaction to the idea that you disagree with so completely. But that’s the very thing we must do if we are to ever grow out of our pasts and into something better.

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[A note about everyone’s response to Atticus: I understand the reactions to this “new” Atticus. Certainly people are disappointed at how his character seemed to have radically changed from To Kill a Mockingbird. I would argue, though, his character didn’t actually change that much at all. Atticus Finch isn’t a perfect man in To Kill a Mockingbird; Atticus Finch may even be called a racist (in fact, literary critics have been calling Atticus racist for a good long while). Perhaps it’s been a while since we’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, or maybe we’re remembering Gregory Peck more than the actual character, but I didn’t see Watchman’s Atticus as too far removed from Mockingbird’s.]

Did you read Go Set a Watchman? Or did the reviews scare you away? What are your thoughts on it?

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