Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Credit: Jarrod Taylor/HarperCollins.

Credit: Jarrod Taylor/HarperCollins.

To Kill a Mockingbird is considered one of the great American novels. If you’re between the ages of 16 and 65, odds are you read it in high school. Harper Lee’s loosely autobiographical portrayal of racial tension in the American South in the 1930s has become one of the most enduring images in American literature. Even in Britain, it’s number one on the librarians’ must-read list, ahead of the Bible and five great books by British authors.

The reclusive Harper Lee never released another book and resisted personal publicity from just a few short years after the original 1960 release. Until, that is, an early manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird entitled Go Set a Watchman, once thought lost, was discovered in Lee’s safe deposit box. Four years later, after significant editing to cut out parts that were nearly identical to Mockingbird, the book was finally published as a sequel, becoming the most highly anticipated book since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I will note that there is some controversy surrounding this book. Even people close to the 89-year-old Lee disagree on whether she really wanted it published. I can’t pass judgment on that, but I can at least feel confident that Ms. Lee has reason to be proud of her work, as she produced a worthy “sequel” to the original. Indeed, if I had been told that Watchman had been deliberately written as a sequel to Mockingbird, I would have believed it.

Go Set a Watchman follows an adult Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as she returns home from college in New York just after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. From Scout’s point of view, the Court’s decision has brought out the worst in the people of her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, white and black, including, to her horror, her own father. She struggles greatly with these changes, but eventually comes to understand them and sees her father in a new, but still positive light.

Go Set a Watchman is not an exact sequel to Mockingbird. For example, in a flashback, it is revealed that Tom Robinson survived in this story, where he was killed in the original. And it seems likely that Harper Lee truly intended Atticus Finch to be the better man he is in Mockingbird than the ambivalently racist character he is in Watchman. And yet, Watchman feels like the perfect sequel in that regard. The ten-year-old Scout sees Atticus as a man who can do no wrong. The twenty-six-year-old Scout discovers that he is only human after all. Thus, Watchman humanizes Atticus in a way that Mockingbird was by its very nature incapable of, while still keeping him as a basically good man who is genuinely trying to do the right thing.

Granted, Watchman is not perfect. It’s an early draft, and it has a definite unpolished feel to it, which detracts from it a little, but the writing is still good, and the editor definitely did a good job. Go Set a Watchman does a wonderful job of deepening the story of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I would definitely recommend it for that reason.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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