Reading Between the Lyons: A Book Review of Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee is, undeniably, one of the most prominent authors of our time. This past summer, controversy surrounded the release of her new book, Go Set a Watchman. Due to the author’s old age, the question was raised of whether she truly approved of the book’s publication or was coerced into allowing the book to be released.

Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but Lee’s publisher suggested that she take all the parts about Scout’s childhood and make those into a novel, and unfortunately, the first-draft nature of this newly released book shines through.

The novel is set about twenty years after the events of the perennial classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch, the lovable tomboy from Lee’s first publication, has matured into a woman who comes home to Maycomb County for a few weeks. But all the characters we loved in To Kill a Mockingbird are either dead or have changed significantly. Jem, Scout’s older brother, is dead, and her friend Dill is nowhere to be found. And Atticus, once the hero of many a man across the country, the bastion of justice in a racist South, is portrayed as just another racist who wants African-Americans to “stay in their place.”

As soon as Scout returns, we are introduced to her boyfriend, Henry “Hank” Clinton, who seems to be the perfect model of courtesy and grace. Atticus, seen through the lens of Scout’s youth, still seems to be the hero, but things quickly start to go sour. Jean Louise, as the protagonist prefers to be called now, soon finds a brochure for a “citizens’ council” on a table in her father’s house. Clearly racist, the brochure is full of admonitions against allowing the African-American race to flourish as well as supposed reasons for their inferiority. Jean Louise, disgusted, goes to the location of the next meeting, where she sees both Atticus and Hank nodding along with the other racists of the county.

That is just the beginning, and that revelation of the true nature of her loved ones’ opinions set her on a journey of self-discovery that mostly involves revisiting old haunts and yelling at Atticus. But once her uncle steps in and hits her for opposing racism, which he sees as a disgrace, she no longer knows what to think. The novel ends with her accepting her loved ones as they are.

Somehow, something feels wrong about this novel. The ending seems to condone racism, as Scout ceases to be proactive in her berating of Hank and Atticus. That’s deeply disturbing; even if this novel was written in the 1960s, since Harper Lee has always been considered ahead of her time on the civil rights front. From a modern point of view, when race is such a major issue in our society, it’s all the more important to strongly advocate against any racism that might rear its head.

Not only that, but the plot and writing are choppy, even nonsensical at times; the plot mostly involves Scout bumbling around, and fails to come to any meaningful conclusion. In fact, the book hardly has an ending at all. The writing sometimes fails to remain coherent. It’s a good thing this book was written, because it is the progenitor of one of the greatest novels ever written, but, by itself, Go Set a Watchman is poorly construed and disappointing in just too many ways. 1.5/5