Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 3.5/5 stars
Blogger Note: It’s been years since I read To Kill a Mockingbird, and a few less years than that since I saw a staged production of the play, so I’m unsure how similar the writing style of GSaW is to TKaM, so I won’t be talking about that. Sorry to anyone disappointed by that.
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.
For those of you who haven’t heard yet (as I hadn’t until after finishing the book), this is the book that would eventually become To Kill a Mockingbird, a first draft of sorts where everything was completely changed. I realize that’s not the way it’s being billed, unfortunately, but I’m not going to speculate on the reasons why that is.
From this point on, there may be SPOILERS.
As the summary states, this is about Jean Louise (Scout to those of us who know TKaM), aged ~25, visiting home. Unfortunately for her, home is not what she remembers it being.
Seeing Jean Louise try to interact with everyone is certainly entertaining. Her interactions with the young women of the town as well as with her aunt, Alexandra, who lives with her father, are probably some of the funnier moments in the book, to say nothing of some of the antics she gets up to with her suitor/boyfriend, Hank.
On the other hand, a lot of the flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood felt like they didn’t belong, didn’t really advance either the story or the theme, and dragged on for far too long.
Further, Atticus in particular did not come across as the sympathetic character I remember from TKaM. Yes, we got to hear his reasoning for being at the town hall meeting that Jean Louise spied on, and yes, Harper Lee tried to present him as a good character, but… I don’t know. This part is just hard for me to articulate because of my own political views. I’m not going to get into that in great detail on this blog, but some of the concerns he raised about the federal government overstepping their rights rings true with events going on in more modern time. On the other hand, I feel like I still don’t fully understand Atticus’s motivations, whether he truly is driven by states’ rights or if this earlier version of him is farther from the Atticus we met in TKaM. If anyone has any theories, please feel free to share them in the comments (which means, yes, there may be SPOILERS in the comments).
In summation, this entire book read like an early draft. Maybe a second or third instead of a first, but it didn’t read like a book that was ready for publication, or indeed like the book that Harper Lee apparently wanted to tell – otherwise she might have tried pushing ahead with this one instead of scrapping it almost completely to write TKaM. I’m still giving it 3.5 stars because a) I still enjoyed reading it (it was hard for me to put it down once I started), b) I liked what Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack had to say about Atticus and Jean Louise’s conscience, and c) I liked Jean Louise in general.
If anyone wants to discuss any of this book or TKaM or Harper Lee in general in the comments, this is one that I have a lot of thoughts about. The main rule, of course, is keep it civil, please and thank you.