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 painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past—a journey that can only be guided by one's own conscience.
After re-reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ before reading this newly published novel by Harper Lee, I was intrigued to see how the older Jean Louise Finch (Scout) would be portrayed in Go Set a Watchman. From very early in my reading I had mixed feelings. I was sad to see that Scout’s brother, Jem, and their nanny, Calpurnia, were not going to be in the story, except in Scout’s memories of her childhood. While the adult Scout is as fiery and determined as I expected her to be, what she faces in her hometown when she goes back to visit her family, overwhelms her and is definitely not what I would have expected to be reading. I felt that much of the novel was in fact a back story. The events and interactions in Go Set a Watchman take place over a few days, dispersed between the recounting of many of Scout’s memories of the past and her reflections on the changes she now sees and experiences in her childhood hometown. Most of the memories make up the story in To Kill a Mockingbird, where they are ‘shown, not told’, as a modern editor might say, and where the impact of Scout’s life as a child is so moving and so engaging for the reader. The comparison made the new novel less engaging for me.
The adult Scout is of an age when a lot of readers would be looking for the romance in her life and there are moments where a love relationship seems to be blossoming. However, I doubt it would be satisfying to those who are drawn to that aspect of a young woman's story.
It helped me understand my own mixed feelings when I read a little more of the history of the writing of Go Set a Watchman. Though the book has been characterized in the media as a sequel to Lee's best-selling novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960, Go Set a Watchman is actually Mockingbird's first draft. The novel was originally finished in 1957, and purchased by the J.B. Lippincott Company. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, was impressed with elements of the story, saying that "the spark of the true writer flashed in every line," but thought it was by no means ready for publication. It was, as she described it, "more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel." As Jonathan Mahler recounts in his Times article on Hohoff, she thought the strongest aspect of Lee's novel was the flashback sequences featuring a young Scout, and thus requested that Lee use those flashbacks as a basis for a new novel. Lee agreed, and over the next couple of years, and various drafts, the novel achieved its finished form and was retitled To Kill a Mockingbird".
For me this explained the long sections of prose in Go Set a Watchman, which focus on the history of Southern American towns and the issue of race and discrimination. While these were interesting and often disturbing issues and facts, I found much of the writing to be journalistic in style, rather than what I would expect in a novel.
However, Scout’s changing perceptions as she comes to terms with the reality (both personal and political) which she faces in Maycomb, Alabama, after spending years in New York, is very moving, and also shocking. I think if this had been published in the 1950s when it was written, there may have been a public outcry in the Southern states of America. And certainly if it had been published after To Kill a Mockingbird, I believe it would have caused much disillusionment in readers who were inspired by that award winning novel.
Scout’s interactions with her uncle and her father, Atticus, were the most poignant aspect of Go Set a Watchman for me. One of the most impactful statements Scout makes in reflecting on the Negro population, is “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 would work with a week’s decency.”
The passion with which Scout deplores discrimination against Negroes, likely says a great deal about Harper Lee as a person. The title she chose for the book comes from Isaiah 21:6, “For thus has the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman. Let him declare what he sees.” As one commentator has said, this alludes to Scout's perception of her father as the moral compass or watchman of Maycomb, and her disillusionment as she realises the extent of the bigotry in her home community.
I’m rather loathe to include others' comments about Go Set a Watchman in my review but as my own feelings were so mixed, I’ve included a few.
Entertainment Weekly panned the book as "a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird" and said "Though Watchman has a few stunning passages, it reads, for the most part, like a sluggishly-paced first draft, replete with incongruities, bad dialogue, and underdeveloped characters". “Ponderous and lurching,” wrote William Giraldi in The New Republic, "haltingly confected, the novel plods along in search of a plot, tranquilizes you with vast fallow patches, with deadening dead zones, with onslaughts of cliché and dialogue made of pamphleteering monologue or else eye-rolling chitchat." In The Spectator, Phillip Hensher called Go Set a Watchman "an interesting document and a pretty bad novel."
Alternatively, Amazon (where the novel is available for purchase) says, “Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor, and effortless precision—a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context, and new meaning to an American classic.”
I guess there will be many different opinions of this novel. I'm glad I've read it for myself, but I am very interested to see some opinions from our own readers and authors.
Carol writes historical novels based on her family ancestry in Australia from the First Fleet. They include the Turning the Tide series; Mary’s Guardian, Charlotte’s Angel, Tangled Secrets and Truly Free. Her earlier novels Suzannah’s Gold and Rebecca’s Dream have been re-released by EBP. Her new novel, Next of Kin, was released by Rhiza Press in May this year. You can see more about Carol and her novels on her website.