GO SET A WATCHMAN Review

Go Set a Watchman - Harper Lee

Synopsis: 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.

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.

 

It's the mid-50s and America has come back from The Great Depression and World War II. Eisenhower is in office, a lot of homes now television sets, and Americans can now afford nice cars and fur coats. With these materialistic changes come even bigger social changes -- the rising of the African Americans and their yearning for equality. Enter Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee's follow-up to the classic To Kill A Mockingbird. Watchman takes place in this time -- the mid-50s -- and the general sense of unease and paranoia beneath the neat, well-groomed facade of American life creates the back-drop for this lean novel about growing up and dealing with disillusionment and fallen idols. 

 

I read this book with a unique vantage point -- I've never read To Kill A Mockingbird in its entirety. I read the first five or six chapters years ago but never completed it. It's one of those novels I've been meaning to read for years but haven't gotten around to it yet. Because of this, I was able to read Go Set A Watchman without making comparisons to Lee's previous novel. I was able to judge this book on its merits alone, and for that I am pretty grateful. When one forgets Harper Lee penned one of the most famous books in American literature, he or she can see this novel isn't bad. In fact... it's quite strong. Sure, it's bit harsher in tone than Mockingbird and some -- i.e. all -- characters from that story are pretty different here (or so I've read in many, many reviews as well as that fact being blatantly mentioned a few times in the text), but it works. People change over time. This story takes place twenty years after Lee's other book, and I don't know of anyone who's the same after such a long space of time. 

 

The biggest talking point surrounding this novel is Atticus Finch, lawyer and good-doing every-man. Without a mom, Jean Louise was raised in her small Alabama town by her father and the black help, Calpurnia. Atticus raised her daughter to believe all men are equal and all men are, essentially, good. Over the years, Jean Louise (affectionately called Scout) has come to think of her father as near-perfect, without flaw. Therefore, it's a bit of a shock to her system when she comes home after being away for so long only to find her father an arthritic, grumpy, racist version of the man she so loved as a child. It's heartbreaking, but one must take into account that the Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird  is six years old and a classic example of an unreliable narrator -- who's to say Atticus was, ever, truly how he was portrayed in that early novel? As I said earlier, people change. Sometimes changes are for the good, but more often they aren't. 

 

I'd like to say more about this novel, but I really don't feel I should. Chances are you've read it or already plan to, or you've already heard everything I could possibly say about it. It should be given a chance if only because it adds a new perspective to the classic story published so long ago. None of the characters are their former selves, nor should it be expected that they would be -- this story takes place twenty years after the events in its predecessor. Jean Louise, Atticus, Henry Clinton, Calpurnia, and the town of Maycomb itself has changed. The town and its populace are cynical, harder, colder. This isn't the book most Harper Lee fans probably want, but here in 2015, it's the one we need.