Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee [Review]

“I just don’t like my world disturbed without some warning.” – Jean Louise Finch tells beau Hank Clinton

From the moment publisher HarperCollins announced the release of “Go Set a Watchman” in early February, reactions of ecstatic disbelief had been shadowed by concerns about the book’s quality. There was a high anticipation of Harper Lee’s new novel from the ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ fans, myself included, and it became the most pre-ordered title on Amazon since the last Harry Potter book. However,  as the months went by I was sceptical about ‘Go Set a Watchman’ and whether I should read it or not. I love ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and I was worried that this sequel would ruin it for me. But I knew that when the book was released I would read it due to my own morbid curiosity.

So on July the 14th I received my copy of ‘Go Set a go set a watchmanWatchman’. Before I started reading it I was spoiled with a few facts, which I am sure everyone knows by now,  especially if you read the first chapter online [which became available 4 days before its release]. The first SPOILER was that Jem died. Now I don’t know whether this piece of news was as sad to others, but I was devastated when I read that. Jem was a big character in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and so protective of Scout. We are not given much detail about his death in the first chapter, but later on in the book it is mentioned that he suffered the same fate as his mother, which was ‘he dropped dead because of his heart’. The second SPOILER is that Atticus is a racist and a member of the KKK! Every fan of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was probably cursing Harper Lee for doing this to our favourite father figure and character. But more on this subject later on.

Let me start by giving a brief description from the back of the book: ”Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch – ‘Scout’ – returns home from New York City to visit her ageing 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 be guided only by one’s own conscience.”

One of the first things that we learnt about ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was that it was meant to be released instead of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Harper Lee started writing the book and her publisher at the time after reading the first draft told her that she would rather read about

harper-leethe children’s childhood in Maycomb. So Harper Lee put ‘Go Set a Watchman’ aside and started on ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. That is how our beloved classic came to be released and become part of our reading world. Now 55 years later ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was found among Harper Lee’s documents in her Alabama house and decided to publish it. Is it just me or is that a bit dubious? considering that Harper Lee was perfectly happy with her quiet life and wanted to stay away from the public eye.  Why after 55 years, Harper Lee decided to publish her then-first novel? And apparently there’s going to be a third one?

Anyway back to the book…. After reading the first chapter, you know that this is an ‘adult’ book , a book that will get darker if you will and very political. After reading ‘Go Set a Watchman’ you feel as if you have grown up. You have lost your innocence, you have developed your own standards and worst of all the person you looked up to, a person you idolised has disappointed you.

Throughout the first part of the book, Harper Lee builds the tension, drawing us in slowly, revealing the Maycomb that we all and Jean Louise ‘Scout’ knew. We visit Finch’s Landing, experience flashbacks to her childhood with Jem and Dill. We soon realise that the Maycomb  we once knew and loved has changed along with its citizens. It is the ‘changes in the people of Maycomb, not the town itself, that are the most shocking and unexpected’. You don’t get to see old familiar faces other than Atticus and aunt Alexandra. Dill is nowhere to be seen other than a passing mention in conversations between Jean Louise and Henry (her new beau) and in flashbacks. Boo Radley is not mentioned anywhere in the book, but to be honest I am glad as who knows what Harper Lee might have changed about him. Not only Atticus changed but also Calpurnia (so angry!).  In ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Calpurnia has long left the Finches’ service and now lives with her children and grandchildren. We’ve always known that Calpurnia was like a maternal figure for both Scout and Jem. She made sure they were well-behaved, scolded them when needed and always considered them one of her own. It is even mentioned in the beginning of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ that she was devastated when Jem died. But that all changes when Jean Louise goes to visit her after her grandson accidentally runs over an old man and killing him. Calpurnia rejects Jean Louise. In an emotional moment, the woman who raised Scout reacts to her with sadness and indifference. Talking to her in her ‘company voice’ as Jean Louise puts it. Finally coming to grips with the realities of what is happening, Jean Louise says, “Tell me one thing, Cal, just one thing before I go – please, I’ve got to know. Did you hate us?” After a long moment of silence, Calpurnia shakes her head. Unfortunately, neither Calpurnia nor any of Maycomb’s other black characters appear again after this powerful scene.  Furthermore, the Finch house, the setting for summer-long imaginative play between Jem, Scout and Dill, has been knocked down and replaced with an ice cream parlour. One would see this  as symbolic; Harper Lee has  destroyed our loving memories of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Why Harper Lee? Just why?

A small mention about Jem and his death… A few reviews that I have read state that Jem’s death has a purpose. And that is to introduce Henry Clinton,  Atticus’ right-hand man, his adoptive son after Jem ‘s death and Jean Louise’s love interest. Henry Clinton is a childhood friend of Jem and Scout’s, which is another reason why Atticus takes him under his wing. However, Henry is not mentioned at all in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ but that is quickly explained in ‘Go Set a Watchman’ as he apparently out of town during the summers. Still though, if he is such an important figure in the Finch’s life surely he would have been mentioned, even in passing conversation. Fortunately, Jem is not gone completely from the novel, I am happy to say as he appears in Jean Louise’s flashbacks.
Ever since I first read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ I immediately loved Atticus Finch and he was the symbol of everything good in humanity. I idolised him as many others have done before me and he was a man who could not do any wrong. The best literary father figure whom every reader wanted to ask for his advice. Then ‘Go Set a Watchman’ came along and ruined everything.  As already mentioned ‘Go Set a Watchman’ follows Scout now  referred to her full name Jean Louise as a grown woman, it shows her discovery that her father is not the man she thought he was and how she copes with this revelation. He is no longer the symbol of all good in humanity. He is simply a flawed and unsympathetic elderly man who is a member of the KKK.  Atticus is clearly a racist; he uses insulting terms and tells Jean Louise that black people “are still in their childhood as a people.” Despite this though, he is still (I feel) an honourable, disciplined man, but not a perfect one.

‘Go Set a Watchman’ is about growing up. It’s about discovering your own person, becoming your own person , and creating your own beliefs and arguments. You are no longer an innocent child who idolises her father, who thinks he is god. You realise he is human and not perfect. He has his flaws. You learn how to stand on your own two feet and not depend on your parents. You accept that you might not agree with your loved one and learn to live alongside them as well as learn to forgive them for their beliefs.  As we see Jean Louise’s childhood image of Atticus crumble before her eyes, we cannot help but feel like it is happening to us as well. As I read ‘Go Set a Watchman’ I felt betrayed by Atticus and disappointed in him. I was angry with him and when Jean Louise was shouting at him and telling him why didn’t he just showed this side of him when she was a child I felt as if I was shouting those statements at him.  Slowly and painfully you realise that what uncle Jack states to Jean Louise on page 265 is true :

”As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God.”

I do wonder though, if Harper Lee did not wait 55 years to publish ‘Go Set a Watchman’ but released this novel a few years after ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ whether fans would feel different. Let us not forget that ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was the novel that Harper Lee was originally going to write and publish. Fans have read and re-read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for years and each time Atticus Finch grows in their hearts. Now Harper Lee comes along, 55 years later, and reveals to us this other side of Atticus Finch. No wonder we are all disappointed and angry. But would be feel like this if we did not have 55 years to idolise Atticus Finch?  Those readers who have read and loved ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for years feel Scout’s pain and heartbreak. She does not even have her brother Jem or her childhood friend Dill by her side during this difficult time. I do wonder sometimes what would Jem think of Atticus if he discovered this side of his? Would he be as heartbroken as Scout?

” Go Set a Watchman is To Kill a Mockingbird grown up”

I have to say though, that by reading ‘Go Set a Watchman’ I could see what Harper Lee’s publisher saw all those years ago. The flashbacks throughout the story were brilliant and to kill a mockingbird1readers like me felt a warm familiar feeling. Like greeting old friends. You get to play with Jem and Dill again, take part in their ideas and shenanigans. Calpurnia is as you remember her, firm but loving. When reading Jean Louise’s flashbacks it put a smile on my face and I am so glad that Harper Lee listened to her publisher and wrote ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Having said that, I have to admit that ‘Go Set a Watchman’  teaches a powerful lesson and that is that eventually you will grow up to have different political views from your parents. It does not mean that I am not still bitter about the whole thing. I am glad to have read ‘Go Set a Watchman’. It gives me an idea of what Harper Lee’s original piece of writing would have been. However, a part of me wishes I did not read ‘Go Set a Watchman’ as I am afraid that maybe it has spoiled my perfect image of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I have told myself that I am going to treat ‘Go Set a Watchman’ as a stand-alone novel. That it has nothing to do with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I have no idea whether ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ will be different for me after reading this novel, but I guess I will not know until I re-read it.  For better or for worse, I believe that ‘Go Set a Watchman’ will change for some the way read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ forever.

Let me finish this post by stating that novelist Ursula Le Guin on her blog  ”asks some of the hard questions To Kill a Mockingbird evades”.  [it is quite interesting and worth a read]

“I’m glad, now, that Watchman was published,” wrote Le Guin. “It hasn’t done any harm to the old woman, and I hope it’s given her pleasure. And it redeems the young woman who wrote this book, who wanted to tell some truths about the Southern society that lies to itself so much. She went up North to tell the story, probably thinking she’d be free to tell it there. But she was coaxed or tempted into telling the simplistic, exculpatory lies about it that the North cherishes so much. The white North, that is. And a good part of the white South too, I guess.”

— K.J. Koukas