CJ’s Bookshelf: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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WatchmanNote: While I will avoid spoilers as much as possible, there are two plot “twists” that have already been discussed at length in the media even before the book’s release, and I will be discussing them here, especially as one in particular relates to the entire theme of the novel.

I have to begin this review by stating there are two things I think people need to keep in mind when reading Go Set a Watchman:

1. This was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, therefore it is the first thing Harper Lee wrote. She had more practice by the time she began Mockingbird, and probably already had a few pointers from her editors on ways to improve her writing.

2. This book was published with very little revision. Even the great writers need good editors to help polish their writing and smooth down the edges a little.

So to judge this novel solely based on a comparison with To Kill a Mockingbird, or be overly critical of it’s flaws is completely unfair. Instead, readers should judge it on its own merit and try to be a little forgiving of Lee’s mechanics and writing style.

All that being said, taking into consideration this was Lee’s first novel and very little revision was made before publication (a fact that is at times obvious to see), this novel overall is fairly impressive. Some revisions certainly could have improved the story – the flashbacks, though enjoyable, sometimes made the story feel disjointed and one on occasion the principal of Scout and Jem’s school switched names and gender multiple times in just two pages –  but overall it’s quite well-written.

Certain aspects of the novel were leaked in the past week and have caused quite a stir on the internet. The first being Jem’s fate. In the very first chapter (which was released online last week) Scout – who now goes by her given name, Jean Louise – reveals that Jem dropped dead on the sidewalk one day. We later learn that it was a result of a genetic heart condition, the same thing that killed their mother. I was disappointed we wouldn’t get to see a grown up Jem, but at the same time this is taking place in the 1950s, shortly after WWII when a lot of families had lost loved ones. While Jem didn’t die in the war, it’s not too surprising that at this point in life, death would have touched the Finch family in some way.

However, though Jem does not appear in the present of this novel, he does appear in those flashbacks I mentioned earlier. My personal favorite is a recollection of one of their make-believe games played with Dill one summer. It reminded me a lot of To Kill a Mockingbird, and may be the closest this novel comes to the tone and style of the classic.

The other aspect of the novel that was leaked last week, and which created quite a bit of controversy online, was Atticus’ apparent reversal of values and his views on race. Sadly, the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman is not the Atticus that readers have admired for decades. This is not the man that sat in front of the jailhouse to protect Tom Robinson from a lynch mob. I’ll be honest and say I fully expected this to ruin the book for me, but it didn’t for two reasons.

First, as I reminded you above, this novel was written before To Kill a Mockingbird and must be read with objectivity. So objectively, this was Atticus as Lee originally wrote him. The story and the characters evolved in her mind between the writing of Watchman and Mockingbird. This is evidenced in the fact that in Watchman Jean Louise states that Atticus once acquitted an African American man accused of raping a white girl. We all know that is not how that story played out in Mockingbird, but in its early stages Lee envisioned Atticus winning that trial. While the part of me that likes continuity cringes at the fact that they didn’t revise that portion of the book, I also find it fascinating, as it’s like having an inside look at Lee’s thought process between the two novels.

Don’t let the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman ruin the image of Atticus you have held since childhood, because this is a slightly different Atticus and a different story.

The second reason Atticus’ reversal on opinions of race didn’t affect me as much as it should have is that it sets up the entire theme of this novel, which is actually a pretty good one, and one nearly every reader can relate to. This is a story of what happens when you finally realize that your parents aren’t perfect, they’re just as fallible as you are. As children we set our parents up as gods, but sooner or later they come crashing off that pedestal. This is the story of Jean Louise when she experiences that, and how she handles this disturbing revelation.

Watchman is also about growing up and realizing that you can think for yourself and form your own beliefs and opinions apart from what your parents believe. You don’t have to hold the exact same beliefs and values they do – it’s okay to clash in those areas and still love each other.

I went into reading Go Set a Watchman excited for a new book by Lee, but with low expectations because I didn’t want to be disappointed. However, I really enjoyed this book and was actually impressed with how well it was written in spite of Lee’s lack of experience at the time and the ultimate lack of revision to the novel. I also believe that with everything that’s been going on in our country these last few months, this novel couldn’t have been published at a better time. It’s just as relevant today as it was back then and can be applied to more than just the question of race.

So set your doubts aside and give Go Set a Watchman a chance. If you go into it with an open mind, I don’t think it will disappoint.

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