Book Review: Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee
HarperCollins, 2015. 278 pages, $27.99.
Reviewed by Dave Cummings
Fifty-five years after publication of one of the most celebrated books in American history, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee has released a second novel about her southern homeland. Go Set a Watchman takes place in fictional Maycomb, Alabama in the 1950s, two decades after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird. The story’s central character, Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, now in her mid-20s and living in New York City, returns to Maycomb to find that either she has changed or her beloved people have. She searches for answers and doesn’t like what she finds.
In Mockingbird we were introduced to Maycomb, a sleepy 1930s southern town inhabited by two separate communities. The white residents were decent folks by most standards. They attended church every Sunday, participated in community events, and were generally kind to the help. The help consisted of black residents trying to find their place in post-reconstruction America. The Negroes had few opportunities in the south, and were expected to “know their place.” Mockingbird is a powerful picture of the struggles experienced by both communities, black and white, in the American south during the Great Depression.
Watchman continues this analysis, jumping ahead to the 1950s. America has survived economic disaster and a horrific war only to find that the war between the races had never really been finished. Jean Louise is now a self-confident, stubborn idealist, fully assimilated into the liberal Yankee world. Her father, Atticus, a man who could do no wrong in Mockingbird, is now an aging man, cynical from years of practicing law, and resigned to southern segregationism. Scout’s return home sets up the central conflict of Watchman.
Watchman starts slowly and awkwardly as we try to adjust our relationship with Jean Louise. Despite Harper’s best efforts, there is little resemblance between Mockingbird’s Scout and Watchman’s Jean Louise Finch. Scout was a tomboy, kind and innocent, naïve to a fault. She hung on her daddy’s every word, and learned to love every person the same. “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none.” Watchman’s Jean Louise, on the other hand, is a dogmatic idealist, angry, a feminist who distrusts all men. She smokes cigarettes and cusses like a sailor. Jean Louise is much harder to relate to, harder for the reader to love than Scout.
Lee also chose to write Watchman from a third person point of view, rather than Scout’s first person narrative in Mockingbird. The result is further detachment from the characters, especially Jean Louise.
The action of Watchman rises slowly, too slowly, with the climax coming in the final chapters. Harper reserves only a chapter or two for resolution, leaving the reader feeling unsatisfied. Coming to the final page of the book, it feels as if you’ve just stepped off a cliff: sudden, painful, regrettable. The hopeful dénouement of Mockingbird is missing from the end of Watchman.
Since its release on July 14, 2015, Watchman, a book written in the 1950s and subsequently “lost” until 2011, has ignited significant controversy in the literary community. The three points of note are these: (1) Lee is a frail 89-year old and may not be competent to have decided on her own to release this manuscript; (2) the book appears to be an early draft, difficult to read at times and in many ways contradictory to the “facts” of Mockingbird; and (3) it is not clear if Watchman was written as a first-draft that eventually led to the well crafted Mockingbird, or if it was intended to be a sequel.
I am unqualified to chime in on this controversy. However, I will comment that several sentences and even entire paragraphs in Watchman are found to be identical in Mockingbird, supporting the idea that this was a first attempt that eventually became Mockingbird. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier in this review, the characters and even some of the “facts” from Watchman are incongruent with the characters and story in Mockingbird.
So, would I recommend Go Set a Watchman? The language makes it unsuitable for young children. The poorly assembled storyline and lack of flow make it a difficult read for adults. Many of the dialogs are more like long lectures – convoluted, filled with vague references, and very difficult to follow. And its incongruence with To Kill a Mockingbird is disappointing, and may even detract from the joy of the original story. If this were a new release from a rookie author, I would say that it is not worth your time.
But as a work of historical significance, given its author and the surrounding controversy over its publication, I am glad to have read it.
Of course, if you have never read To Kill a Mockingbird (watching the 1962 film with Gregory Peck doesn’t count), now is the time to pick it up. Lee’s first book is a novel for the ages.