Due to the controversy of whether or not this book should have been publisher and if it was despite Harper Lee’s previous wishes, I decided not to read it when it first came out. However, the copy at the public library recently intrigued me enough that I figured it was time. Another initial reason for not picking it up soon was the fact that it received mediocre to poor reviews as a novel. To be fair, while Go set a watchman is technically a sequel, it is no To kill a mockingbird which it seems many people expected.
First, there is some history that needs to be addressed for this novel. Go set a watchman was written before To kill a mockingbird, even though it is set after her famous novel. The story focuses on Jean Louise Finch (a.k.a. Scout) still but she is 26 and returning to Maycomb on her annual visit, having moved to New York. It is written in third person, unlike the famous first person of To kill a mockingbird. Also, most of the characters that we know and love are already present in this novel but some are very different, namely Atticus. As a person who dabbles in writing, I can tell you that characters change and grow (or morph) from the first writing to their final incarnation. So, since Lee wrote this novel in the 1950s and likely did little to no editing before it was published in 2015 means that it should surprise no one that it isn’t the same Maycomb nor the same exact characters. To me, this feels like a precursor exercise to her later written To kill a mockingbird that was never meant for publication. So it shouldn’t be described as a sequel; it’s a standalone work that happens to have somewhat the same setting and similar characters. It always breaks my heart when an unfinished or unintended work is published usually after the author dies but it is fairly common.
Putting all of that aside, let’s focus on just Go set a watchman as a single novel. The topic itself is oddly quite timely in America right now. Jean Louise returns home to be shocked by the level of racism in her hometown and is upset that her good friend and presumed sweetheart Henry along with her father Atticus aren’t opposing it more. She disagrees with their approach to toe the line just enough so that they can stay aware of what heinous acts active racists might do so that they can stop or prosecute them. After a black man accidentally runs over a drunk white man and kills him, Atticus gets into a fight with Jean Louise and it’s at that point that she realizes he views blacks as less-than-human who need to slowly be integrated into white society so that they don’t fail and so she throughly disagrees with him. Part of his reasoning is that it is just his generation as well as trying to live civilly in small, racist community without being alienated. With the current racial violence plaguing the country and such a divisive presidential election recently, the topic itself surely struck a chord with me while reading it. Also the n-word is used about 10-15 at least, especially towards the end, which only further emphasizes the tension and hated of that Maycomb. As Jean Louise references the case that her father tried when she was little, the main focus in To kill a mockingbird, she believes that the town and her father have drastically changed on her but as she comes to realize that perhaps she just never saw it before and now it’s just coming to the forefront which is what truly bothers her.
While the topic is racism is addressed, the novel is truly about Jean Louise and her reckoning with the fact that she sees her father for the first time as a flawed person with whom she utterly disagrees with when it comes to blacks and their treatment. For the first two-thirds, the story describes Jean Louise’s homecoming interspersed with memories from her childhood, especially of Jem her brother. Not long into the novel, it’s revealed that Jem died young and suddenly due to a heart attack–like their mother. While there are many reasons for this plot decision, it mainly adds another emotional struggle for her returning home and makes it even more difficult for her to have her idyllic image of her father smashed. Jean Louise is a strong, opinionated woman yet falls back into the childhood mindset and attitude. Due to this, the overall plot is slower-paced as we mainly follow her around Maycomb and interacting with family, friends, and townspeople of the past. The last third picks up with the struggle of her dealing with the town’s and her family’s varying degrees of racist views. In the end, she comes to some semblance of terms with it, due to her uncle ‘s harsh reasoning with her. However, it is unclear whether she will move back and marry Henry or return to New York and only continue to visit annually.
Recommended?: It depends. If you are hoping for a direct sequel of To kill a mockingbird, then you will likely be disappointed. If you can think of this work as separate from it and are curious about the original characters and backstory then you may appreciate this novel. Overall, I didn’t find it compelling and since I disagree with it being published since it seems unfinished, it wasn’t as enjoyable for me. For anyone who has read it, I’d like to know what you think.