Book #20

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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.

I was so excited to read this book. To Kill a Mockingbird has been one of my favourites since I read it in school, with my understanding of its message growing each time I went back to it again growing older. You can read my most recent review of it here, and you'll see how I felt about the story. Reading that review, you'll maybe understand my overall feeling of Go Set a Watchman which is that some things should be left alone.

It's strange this novel was written after TKAB, as it seemed to be teaching me a lesson. Where I (alongside Scout) had previously held Atticus in high regard, as a paragon of virtue amongst evil, we both failed to recognise that Atticus is only a man, only human, and that humans can have flaws, and can change. For such a man to become what he did, however, is something I'm struggling to shape my mind around, however Lee explains this to us as follows:

“As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings—I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ‘em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.”

Didn't we all read TKAB and feel this way about Atticus? I feel many of us will remain emotionally crippled after this betrayal.

Don't get me wrong, it was wonderful to see my old friends again, particularly Scout. She hasn't changed in her opinions, her headstrong approach, and her attitude towards Maycomb and its traditions. Other things have changed, however, whether it's characters (both personality and presence), atmosphere or honesty. 

Most of all, the childhood innocence is gone from the pages. It's purely, devastatingly, adult. There's no mystery, no naïve confusion, and the biggest disappointment of them all - no Boo Radley. Not a single mention. Twenty years have passed and I was so looking forward to hear what had happened to that kind and simple neighbour. Nothing; as though he didn't exist.

It's clear to see why Lee's publisher read the novel, and requested a book from Scout's childhood point of view. The flashbacks were the most interesting parts, full of the heart-wrenching pains of growing up, more particularly growing up a woman.

I feel really sad about this book. It's very obviously a first draft, as it meanders along, losing its way before getting back on track. It shows our much-loved characters in a dim light (even Scout was a real pain at times), and it takes away the childhood dream-like qualities of small town Maycomb. Most of all, I'm sad that this seems to have been published simply to cash in on the success of TKAB, and the jury is still out (no pun intended) on whether Lee was still in the proper mindset to agree to this. For this reason alone, it seems unfair to write a review filled with feelings of being let down when the author never had the chance to craft the story into something wonderful.

Undoubtedly still a must-read, despite its imperfections. I enjoyed returning to Maycomb, but I didn't like returning as an adult. All future visits from Scout and I will be as children again.