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Review: Go Set a Watchman

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in a high school English class, and was surprised even then by how much I liked it. Then, 55 years after Harper Lee’s single publication, came its sequel,  Go Set a Watchman. I bought a copy of each book for my own shelf, and set them aside until I was planning my classic reads for 2017 and decided that it was time to revisit an old love and examine what might be a new one.

“Love’s the only thing in this world that’s unequivocal. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it’s a you-do or you-don’t proposition with them all.”

This quote rings true for me, and yet–do I love Go Set a Watchman? Do I love it? I’m not sure. I don’t feel the same about it as I do To Kill a Mockingbird. It calls for a different kind of appreciation, but at the same time it changes my view of TKaM as well.

gosetawatchmanAbout the book: Scout is grown up. Well, she’s on her way to growing up in this coming-of-age story. She’s twenty-six, visiting her family and friends in Maycomb from her current place of residence in New York. Some staple characters from her childhood have been and are being removed from her adult life by death, age, and irreconcilable difference of opinion. An automobile accident in town in which a black man brings about the death of a white man sets old memories and new problems in motion for the whole town, but especially for Scout and her family. For the first time she can remember, Scout is seeing things differently than some of the people she’s closest to–its a fundamental difference that shakes her whole world and forces her to choose sides in morality–and to see on which side of the line her loved ones lie.

“They say when you can’t stand it your body is its own defense, you black out and you don’t feel any more. The Lord never sends you more than you can bear–“

About the layout: The entire book follows Scout, mostly in her present life in 1955 but there are also flashbacks/memories of Scout’s childhood, some with reminders of what happened in TKaM, but others with new information, from later in her childhood and teen years. These glimpses into Scout’s younger life help bridge the gap between Scout’s ages and views of the world in TKaM and GSaW.

Another interesting formatting technique is that GSaW contains entire passages lifted directly or with slight paraphrasing from TKaM. Several sentences, mixed throughout the first half of the book, reveal the same information and perspective on the founding of Maycomb and how it (and the people who live in it) operates. At first I found this annoying because I had just read TKaM earlier in the week and I wanted a fresh story, not the same one. But I looked more closely at some of those passages in both books, and I found slight differences. I realized that they were revealing something about Scout: that her basic life and memories were the same between the two books, but as with all memories and perspectives, slight (or great) changes occur over time. People realize new things from old evidence. Scout’s entire perception of the events in TKaM will be turned upside down in GSaW, and these double passages serve as a reminder that our narrator is as flawed as anyone else and that no matter how sure she may be of her past, things change.

“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. I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.”

About the characters: Many of the characters from TKaM seem very different in GSaW than they did in the previous book. Some of the changes can seem rather upsetting at first, for the reader, but especially for Scout. My biggest disappointment of character, though, came in the form of twenty-six year-old Scout. For the first hundred pages or so, I didn’t like her at all. She seems startlingly childish for a woman of her age, but even as a child in TKaM she was not so quick to pick fights and cause trouble. She was good with her fists, yes, and wouldn’t take an insult lying down, but in GSaW she’s defiant and independent to the point of being outright rude and mean in places where it’s unnecessary and uncalled for. She has no qualms about provoking her aunt and speaking whatever’s on her mind, and although Henry clearly adores her she’s constantly badgering him.

And on the subject of Henry, might I ask why he and Dill couldn’t have been the same character? Dill, Scout’s childhood friend from TKaM is absent in GSaW, but the reader is told that soon after the end of that book, Henry Clinton moved in across the street and was more or less taken in by the Finches. It doesn’t make sense to me that such an important character in this book wouldn’t have been present in the previous book (especially since the note at the end of my copy reveals that Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first, and both were more or less complete at the time of her first round of publication), at the same time as a friendly face from TKaM is being removed. I would’ve liked to see the two of them melded into one character who remains constant between the books–or at the very least, to have seen Henry’s arrival in town or a hint of his upcoming importance before he becomes a major character in GSaW. The flashbacks to Scout’s later childhood with Henry help make up for his absence in TKaM, but as Henry turned out to be one of my favorite characters here, even that felt like too small an acknowledgment of his presence in Scout’s life.

“The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Once I got over the extreme shock of some of the characters’ personalities coming to new light, I did like the literary moves Lee made here and the acknowledgment of Scout’s young age and potential misperception of events in To Kill a Mockingbird. Henry was perhaps the only character I really like through and through in this book, which was a change from loving everyone in TKaM, but that seems to have been the point–Scout was generous and trusting in TKaM, and in this sequel she’s seeing the world more objectively; character flaws are coming out. Despite their flaws, though, no one in GSaW is truly unredeemable, and there’s nothing I love more than a good handful of morally gray characters.

Further recommendations:

  1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is my recommendation for readers who like To Kill a Mockingbird best from the Harper Lee duo. It advocates for freedom and equality between races at a time when slavery was still the norm in southern US, and is as deeply emotional as some of the lessons Scout learns in TKaM.
  2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is my recommendation for readers who like Go Set a Watchman for the challenges it poses to the idea that morality is a clear path. Just as GSaW muddies the waters of right and wrong with reasonings on both sides of conflict, so too do the Southern characters of Gone With the Wind who face the end of more than slavery with the arrival of the Civil War.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, the first novel in an adult urban fantasy trilogy. It’s not what I expected–it seems more like a romance with a fantasy backdrop so far–but it’s highly addictive even though I have some criticisms.

What are you reading to kick off summer 2017?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant