Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee


Historical FictionGo Set a Watchman by Harper LeeJean Louise “Scout” Finch is returning home for a two week vacation. She left Maycomb, Alabama, and moved to New York City. But she comes back for vacation every year. She’s met at the train by her old friend Henry who is now her father’s assistant. Atticus Finch is a 70+ year old lawyer and single father who raised Scout and her brother to be good people. Her respect for Atticus is total.

The South is changing. The Supreme Court passed the racial equality laws. The NAACP is actively assisting Negroes when they are arrested. Maycomb has not had any problems with the organization but it’s a possibility that always looms. The white people are pulling in. The black people are becoming more insular, less friendly the to people they known for years.

Then Jean Louise finds Atticus and Henry involved with the community’s leaders in a white racist committee. Her whole world is shattered. Atticus is not the man she thought she knew all her life.  She doesn’t understand him or Henry, the man who wants to marry her. She was raised to be color blind – how could they be prejudice like that now after all these years?

Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman before To Kill a Mockingbird but it wasn’t accepted. Instead, the powerful novel of a southern white lawyer defending a black man for a rape he didn’t commit was released and is considered one of the best classics of the 20th century. Go Set a Watchman isn’t powerful, but it examines a lot of issues for the reader to contemplate.

Scout’s childhood memories in Go Set a Watchman detract from the novel as much as add to it. Some are pertinent to the story at hand. Others feel like non sequiturs that are padding to the story with little real contribution. The novel is uneven in the first half although comes together in the second half as Jean Louise faces truths she has hidden from herself.

Although Jean Louise is 26, Go Set a Watchman is a coming of age book as much as it is a book about facing racism. Her father has been her touchstone all her life, even more after her brother died of a family heart condition. She lives in New York City, but Maycomb is her home. She sees her aunt as a flighty Southern woman and her uncle as an eccentric physician and scholar, but her father is a solid man. When her illusions are shattered and she has to face the fact that Atticus is human, Jean Louise either has to crumple or grow up.

Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman makes big statements about racism and the South, now in the 1950s. Lee examines the adjustments both the whites and the blacks had to make as equality is a mandated reality in the United States. Atticus Finch and the town coalition want to preserve Maycomb as those changes occur. Atticus’ reasoning is understandable but is short sighted. Go Set a Watchman demonstrates the dangers both Atticus’ too slow of progress and the NAACP’s too quick progress of making the necessary changes.

One minor theme Lee touches on slightly is the issues of States’ rights in the United States versus Federal rights. One conversation underlines how the American Civil War was really over States’ Rights rather than slavery itself. As more laws are passed, more amendments are added to the Constitution, States’ Rights continue to weaken. They were part of the original vision of this country but are eroding.

Go Set a Watchman is a short book that has its flaws. Even so, the reader gets to see how Scout has grown into Jean Louise and the reader is given ideas to chew upon. Anyone who loved To Kill a Mockingbird will want to read this book. But anyone who likes coming of age stories or dealing with inequality would also enjoy Go Set a Watchman.

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