Book Review: Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Goodreads Summary:
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.

A little background:
I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 8th grade, but I don’t remember anything about it. I know we watched the movie too, but all I recall is that it was in black and white, and the girl who played Scout had short hair.

When I originally heard about Go Set a Watchman, I didn’t plan on reading it. I had assumed it was a sequel, and since I didn’t remember the original, I kind of thought, “what’s the point?” Then I read a post by Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy discussing the three way to approach Go Set a Watchman. I was intrigued. I planned to consider it a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I wanted to read To Kill a Mockingbird first.

Then last week I read this review by Flo at Book Nerds Across America, and I immediately hopped on my library website and reserved the book. It just seemed that if I really wanted to approach it as a first draft, I should read it first. There were 300+ holds on the book in my library system, but there were 7 copies for my library alone. Somehow that afternoon when I arrived at the library to pick up some other hold requests, this book was also waiting for me.

It was a 7 day loan, so I dove right in.

My Review:
Despite the more literary writing style (it was written in the 1950s), I really enjoyed this book. It’s the story of Jean Louise Finch, a 26-year old girl from Maycomb, Alabama, who has been living in New York City for many years. She comes home on her annual visit and finds the town much changed in her absence. Her father is aging. Her aunt has moved in to take care of him since, at 72 years old, he suffers from arthritis. The town has changed too. I found these elements of the story to be universal. Who hasn’t dealt with moving away from home and coming back after a time to find things very different than her memory? Aren’t we all trying to cope with our parents getting older?

Jean Louise is also trying to decide whether to marry her oldest friend, Henry. Her father took him under his wing and trained him in law after her brother died unexpectedly. Jean Louise knows she loves him, but she’s not sure she should marry him. And she’s not sure she can live in Maycomb again. I enjoyed this plot as well. It’s another common internal debate of young adulthood. And the banter between Jean Louise and Hank was amusing.

Later in the novel Harper Lee gets to the part everyone is commenting on. Jean Louise discovers that her father is a racist (in her mind). I found it to be a very enlightening commentary of the South in the time of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling. Jean Louise, Atticus, and Henry had reactions that I would not have predicted. Ultimately, it’s a young girl dealing with her father not living up to this god-like man she’s imagined all her life. Again, it’s something many children struggle with as their beliefs progress with those of the younger generation, and their parents remain in the past.

The writing wasn’t perfect. There were quite a few random flashbacks and tangents that didn’t necessarily enhance the story. And the climax of the story was a little confusing and took a long time to resolve. But knowing that this book was unedited, I tried to look past all of that. And what I found was a highly relatable story with interesting characters and some enjoyable political commentary.

I’m glad I read this book before reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

Favorite Quotes:
“Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up?”

“I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference.”

My Rating: 4 Stars
Understand my ratings.

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  1. I'm glad you read it! You are right in that there is the relatable and universal theme of going home as an adult and finding it different than you remembered. Are you going to do a review of Mockingbird after you read it? Would love to see that!

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