Book Review – Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
September 10, 2015
From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.
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.
As soon as I heard that there was a new Harper Lee book coming out, I knew I had to read it. There has been a huge amount of hype and drama surrounding the release of this book, and I will attempt to incorporate what I have learned (from reading a wide variety of sources) throughout this review. Regular followers of my blog know that I feel brevity is key in reviews, and I will do my best to stick to that philosophy here (but there is so much that it might get tricky). Before I read Harper’s newest, I went back and reread To Kill a Mockingbird immediately prior, which I think provided an interesting contrast. I would recommend a reread of TKAM before you pick up GSAW.
I went into the book with the theory that GSAW was the rough draft of TKAM before it went through the editing process. After reading both books, I do think that theory makes sense, but the books are very different in many ways. The writing is more developed in TKAM, and it is also more reader friendly (meaning it was easier to follow along and visualize what was occurring). There were more than a few words that I needed to use a dictionary for in GSAW, and I find that type of reading always slows me down when I’m in the heat of the action.
There has been a ton of hoopla about how Atticus is a horrible racist in GSAW, but I had a somewhat different take on that. Did he participate in racist activities and make some racist comments…..yes. However, I think that his statements were reflective of the period of time of the novel. Did he defend and stand up for the rights of all….sort of. Did he want his daughter to develop opinions of her own without his sway….yes. Atticus is not nearly as open-minded or as free speaking as he was in TKAM, but I think books set during a particular time period need to reflect the struggles and beliefs of that period, and I think GSAW does just that. It provides you with a sense of people feeling conflicted about the ways in which they’ve lived their lives for centuries, and it shows how different people handled that in different ways.
Rumor has it that Harper Lee never wanted this manuscript released, and if that is the case, I’m sad that her wishes were not followed. I didn’t let that keep me from reading a book from a master of writing though. I just had to see for myself how the two books compared, and I would encourage you to do the same if you are a fan of TKAM.
Here are some of the positives of GSAW:
- I like how Lee portrayed the relationship between Scout and Atticus. She adeptly demonstrates how children separating from their parents on many levels can be a difficult and sometimes disillusioning prospect.
- I appreciate that Lee also portrayed several of the different viewpoints that existed in the South during the turbulent times of the 1950’s. You really get a sense of what life was like, and how people struggled to find their place regardless of what their beliefs were.
- I really like the addition of Atticus’ brother and appreciated how his character was used to explain some of the relationship and social dynamics that existed throughout the novel.
On the downside:
- I don’t want to give anything away, but Jem plays a much smaller role in GSAW, and I really missed the sibling dynamic that existed between them.
- I also missed the viewpoint of children in this novel, since we are following Scout as an adult in GSAW.
- I’m still not a fan of Aunt Alexandra.
Overall, I do recommend this read simply because it is interesting to see the differences between the two novels, one of them having a significant place in the world of classic literature. I did enjoy the read despite the fact that it isn’t quite as good as To Kill a Mockingbird.
Did you read Go Set a Watchman? How do you think it compared to To Kill a Mockingbird?