Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman follows Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as she returns to her hometown, Maycomb, Alabama. Yearly, she travels from New York to Alabama, and the novel opens with her long train ride. Jean Louise muses about the past, surrounded by loved ones and friends, for a large chunk of the beginning of this novel.
Once home, she unearths secrets about her father, Atticus Finch, an attorney and former legislator. Discovering harsh truths, she breaks ties that held Maycomb close to her heart and her inner child alive and naïve, despite being in her early twenties. This revelation in adulthood gives her an eye-opening understanding of her past, present, and her heritage as a Southern woman as the Civil Rights Movement takes shape.
The most prominent theme here is racism. Jean Louise’s altercation with Atticus and Henry “Hank” Clinton–Jean Louise’s love interest and Atticus’s junior partner in his law firm–about their resistance to the NAACP in Alabama is exacerbated by her father’s long-standing ties with the KKK. An interesting aspect is that the issue of race was brought into Atticus’ home. The story shows how it affected a young woman who had such high opinions of her father, then became crushed by the truth.
I read a fascinating analysis of the symbols used in this novel. For instance, the title itself refers to the Biblical Isaiah 21:6. “For thus hath that Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” — King James version.
Early interpretations assert that the watchman refers to Atticus, and how he serves to undermine the morality with which Jean Louise had oriented herself in the world. It could also be said that Jean Louise herself becomes her own watcher, observing the world through her own eyes rather than her father’s. Her nickname “Scout” seems to favor the idea that scouts range ahead to see what’s coming. Which makes me wonder if Lee was intentional in her decision to give her this nickname. My guess is that she knew exactly what she was doing with these symbols, and that is truly commendable.
That said, this novel does not follow contemporary structure. In that, there is no real hook, large chunks of backstory, continuity issues, and the entire beginning is mainly musings with very little tension. Other than when she locks herself in her bunkroom and can’t get out. Which, honestly, didn’t work for me.
I will say, a large part of the problems I had with this novel is that I was expecting a crime novel. This story is more of a politically, racially-motivated family drama. And those who enjoy this type of story will find much to like. For me, reading an unedited first draft is not something I’d do twice.
Many loved this novel, however, so please take my comments at face-value. This is only one opinion…mine. I don’t normally review books that I can’t in good conscience give at least four stars. To shred someone’s hard work goes against everything I hold dear, but I also refuse to lie and tell you this book kept me up nights, flipping pages.
I’ll leave you with this. To Kill a Mockingbird is such a cherished piece of literary history. If you want to see what Harper Lee envisioned for what happens next, Go Set a Watchman is definitely worth the read. If you’d rather not ruin your memories, then perhaps skipping this sequel is best.
Next, we’ll continue with the series Murder at Cabin 28.
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