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Go Set a Watchman:

A Shot Straight to the Childhood

By James Hoyle
On August 27, 2015

Many students will remember Harper Lee's first classic from high school literature classes. Now, they can see how it all began in this first draft from one of the most influential authors of the time. 
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Before I begin this review, I would like to preface it by saying that there will be massive spoilers. If you have any intention of reading this book, I suggest that you do and come back to this review later. 

With that out of the way, Go Set A Watchman is being sold as a sequel to the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning classic To Kill A Mockingbird. However, Go Set A Watchman was actually submitted first to a publisher. In The New York Times article “The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, writer Johnathon Mahler describes the struggle To Kill a Mockingbird went through to get published. When it was first submitted to the publisher, the editor loved her voice, but said that it did not flow well as a novel, and demanded a rewrite. The published version of To Kill a Mockingbird is more or less the fruit of that rewrite. Go Set a Watchman was found in a safety deposit box, and it was eventually published mostly due to the efforts of Lee’s family and not Lee herself. This leaves the publication of this book suspicious especially since it was announced a mere two months after the death of Harper Lee’s sister and caregiver. 

This is not a review of the ethics of the book’s publication however, but rather a review of the content. And the content is interesting to say the least. The story takes place in the 1950s. Young Scout has grown up and is now calling herself by her full name, Jean Louise. She comes down to Maycomb, Alabama to visit her family. Lee described Maycomb as a town where things never changed. However, Maycomb has changed. The Civil Rights movement is about to go into full swing, and needless to say, there is unrest in the town. It is here that Jean discovers that Atticus Finch, the man that generations have looked up to, is just as racist as everyone else in the town. Horrified, Scout spends the rest of the book trying to cope with the fact that her father is not who she thought he was. This is without a doubt a bleak set up. Jem died in a swimming accident years ago, and Dill is nowhere to be found. On top of that, dear old Calpurnia wants nothing to do with Jean now that Atticus has unfurled his true colors. 

When Calpurnia’s grandson is arrested for speeding and killing a drunk pedestrian with a car, Atticus agrees to take the case, if only to stop the NAACP from getting involved. She talks to her Uncle about Atticus’s apparent shift in ideals, but she does not want to hear his explanation. At the courtroom, Atticus argues that African Americans are not ready for full civil rights and that Brown vs. Board of Education was a mistake. Scout, disgusted by her father’s apparent betrayal of everything she thought he held dear, packs her things. Uncle Jack slaps some sense into her and explains that she spent her entire life worshipping Atticus as a god, that she forgot that he is human too, with prejudices the same as anyone, and that she needs to learn how to become her own person. Atticus says he’s proud of her for standing up for what she believes in, and she leaves for New York. 

There are some interesting themes in this book, particularly the bigots calling out other bigots. By choosing one flaw in Atticus and ignoring the amazing amount of work he’s done for African Americans as a lawyer, it can be argued that she is being unfair, especially since this is the man that raised her and helped to mold her into the person that she is. This message resonates now more than perhaps it would have in the 1960s, especially in this “Gotcha saying something offensive” witch hunting mentality we see in the political landscape today.  We are often far too eager to write someone off as evil simply because their political opinions differ from ours. It’s easy to say someone is a racist or a homophobe or a bigot without knowing their full story or whatever else they might do for the good of the community. Go Set a Watchmen says that this kind of thinking is just as bigoted. 

Take a look at Atticus, for instance. Does his prejudice overrule everything else he’s done? Does being a racist automatically make you evil? From what I gathered from this book, no. I do not think Atticus was ruined by this book. In fact, knowing that he so viciously defended Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird despite his prejudice just shows how much he truly believes in the very American ideal of equal protection under the law. What this book is saying, in my opinion, is that even if someone has a worldview that is not your own, you should at least try to give them a chance, and not write them off forever, because opinions change. If the immovable Maycomb can change, than surely the most bigoted curmudgeon can one day see the light if we give a chance to see the error of their ways. After all, Abraham Lincoln did not believe in equality in the races, yet he still signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Is his legacy tarnished because his reasons for doing might have been dubious? Hardly. Likewise, Atticus is still the same as he always was. Another important theme is the theme of growing up and making your own decisions. 

The title Go Set a Watchmen comes from the Bible. In Isaiah 21:3, it says: “For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees.” What this basically means from a theological sense is stick your guns about what you think is right and wrong. Atticus is sticking to his, and by Jean’s interactions with Atticus in this, draws on strength she never knew she had. She once looked up to Atticus like a god, but realizing he’s just a flawed human, she must now come to her own decisions about what is right and wrong, and set her own watchman.

These are themes well worth talking about and exploring. I just wish this novel wasn’t so poorly put together. It just jumps from scene to scene without any kind of meaning. It does read like a first draft, which is exactly what this is. Lee’s wonderful sense for detail is present, but it just isn’t as refined as it was in Mockingbird. I will let you, the reader, use your conscience to decide whether or not buying what is essentially a first draft published under shady conditions is wise. If you do buy it, you will find a moral and message well worth exploring, but the method of delivery is not up to what we would expect from somebody like Harper Lee. All that said, I give this book a very hesitant recommendation. It won’t be for everyone, but those who choose to stick with it will find something worthwhile. Go Set a Watchmen is currently available wherever books are sold.


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