Well, I managed to avoid all the hype surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s GO SET A WATCHMAN. I didn’t want to know about it in advance. All I knew was that this manuscript had been kept by Alice (Lee’s sister) in a safety deposit box and was an early draft of writing that pre-dated TKAM. It had the same characters. Considering that I have read TKAM 20 times (seriously) and it is one of my favorite books ever, I pre-ordered it months ago and waited to read it.
(As I write about my reading experience, I will note where there are SPOILERS).
WATCHMAN starts with Jean Louise heading home to Maycomb to visit her family. She lives in NYC now and is in her early twenties. I have to say, that once I started reading, I just felt enveloped by Harper Lee’s writing. It was like a warm bath. Her voice and style is so distinctive (yes, I never believed Truman Capote wrote TKAM. Sacrilege!). I nestled in to the book with the thought, “Nelle Harper, you’ve come home to your readers.” The first 100 pages not too much happened beyond Jean Louise returning home. Familiar characters became familiar once again. (SPOILER ALERT) Most notably, though, Atticus is aging and infirm from arthritis; and dear Jem is dead (passed away before the start of the book from a congenital heart issue). I have to say I was a bit startled by these changes. A new character (or at least one I don’t remember from my many reads of TKAM) is Hank, a neighbor and friend of Jean Louise. He wants to marry her and the two of them seem set for each other. Hank is taking over Atticus’ law practice.
Then a pivotal event occurs (SPOILER!!!!). Jean Louise visits the courthouse to see what the Citizens’ Council is up to and finds a speaker there who is working hard to keep segregation in the South. He spews forth some evil, racist remarks. Jean Louise is shocked but most shocking of all is that her father sits on one side of him and her intended on the other. Atticus Finch is a racist?? Well, I was as shocked as Jean Louise. I was disgusted. I felt tricked. What happened to that pillar of righteous justice from TKAM?? Jean Louise felt that same way.
The next part of the book is her trying to come to grips with this. There are flashbacks. There is a passing mention to the Tom Robinson trial – which is different from the Tom Robinson trial of TKAM but definitely based on the same trial. Jean Louise struggles and fights and rails. Her uncle plays a big role in this part of the book – but to be honest, I found him confusing. His words to her were almost all allegory and “riddles”. I was confused – but maybe that was just me. All the time Jean Louise is seeing racism and prejudice everywhere she looks.
At the end (SPOILER!!) I thought there might be a different wrap-up. I don’t know what I expected – maybe Atticus to slap her on the back and say, “I’m only fooling with you, Scout! And with your readers!” However, I think the ending is important in that Atticus doesn’t change. Scout has seen him for what he is. She accepts him though she doesn’t agree with him. And this is the point where the story becomes a true coming of age story — Atticus is proud of her because she thinks differently from him and stands by her convictions. In her mind, she “welcomes him to the human race”. Atticus has been a demigod for Jean Louise (and for many of us readers). He’s not. He’s human – and imperfect.
So let’s think about the title here. Jean Louise hears them say it in church so I googled it and it’s a Biblical reference from Isaiah. Go set a watchman. Go set a person who will watch over us all. I am guessing Nelle Harper considered Atticus the watchman, as this was a book that pre-dated and was reworked into TKAM. To read this one, you could consider Jean Louise to be the watchman, as she has entered the fight against racism and injustice.
However, shouldn’t and couldn’t we all be the watchmen?
You can see this book at your local indie or on Amazon It’s where I preordered mine ages ago. It is less than 300 pages.
Just a note. I did find the blatant racist language and diatribes in this book hard to read. You might, too.