Review: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set A Watchman’

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

I guess Harper Lee has led the life many aspiring novelists can only dream of – publish a book and have it sell over 30 million copies, and have (more than) enough to last a lifetime. Plus, what a lasting legacy the book ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ has. For sure, any other novel that she writes after this will likely pale in comparison (oops), but Harper Lee now gives us ‘Go Set A Watchman’. *wink*

‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ fans can read this second book without fear. Instead of destroying your impressions about the characters, you’ll get a greater insight into what Scout and Atticus really think about racial issues. But… if you have trouble coming to terms with reading about a now-old Atticus Finch (72 years old and almost crippled by rheumatoid arthritis) and a Scout who is quite comfortable doing the unimaginable – SMOKING – then you’d best not read this book.😀

I also came to realize that I missed the character Dill / Charles Baker Harris. I love reading about the things that Dill, Scout and Jem did as kids and the part about Dill dressing up as the “Holy Ghost” in ‘Go Set A Watchman’ was laugh-out-loud-FUNNY! I’ll not spoil it for you… you can go read about it yourself.

I’m not sure if ‘Go Set A Watchman’ was indeed, as Wikipedia says, the original text that should have been published instead of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. But how different things would have been! I’m not sure if Harper Lee would still have gone on to receive “the Pulitzer Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and numerous other literary awards and honours” as the book’s cover sleeve so proudly shares.

Free postcards at the back of the book😀

Go Set A Watchman postcards Harper Lee

My biggest disappointment in reading this book is finding out that Jem had simply keeled over and died one day. Presumably, he had a heart problem, just like his mother had. But we do get to read about Henry Clinton a.k.a. Hank. Hank is Scout’s suitor and when they are together, we get something to laugh about. From the late-night swim in the river (they were caught by spying eyes and said to have been swimming naked, when they were in fact clothed. Atticus’ response was pretty epic and super funny!) to the flashback to Scout’s schooldays when she showed up for a Commencement Dance with a pair of “false bosoms” which did not stay in place during the dance (what Hank did thereafter led to a hilarious situation in school). You’ll really have to read about these instances!

And, of course, there’s no avoiding issues about race and racial tensions in this book.

If more people are like Scout, we’d have fewer outbreaks of racism all around the world. Scout says on p179 that “They were poor, they were diseased and dirty, some were lazy and shiftless, but never in my life was I given the idea that I should despise one, should fear one, should be discourteous to one, or think that I could mistreat one and get away with it”. I would attribute this to Atticus’ not having a second marriage to a white woman and instead, employing a black woman (Calpurnia) to be the cook and also help in raising his two children.

As Scout’s Uncle Jack a.k.a. Dr. Finch says, “You’re color blind, Jean Louise… You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like. You’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially. You see only people.” 

We definitely need more people who are color blind when it comes to race. And I do believe that this book still serves a purpose in reinforcing this point, especially when Scout begins to think that Atticus might be a racist and lashes out at him.

Dr Finch explains to Scout that “He (Atticus) was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being”. And isn’t this what Harper Lee is trying to do for us readers too? *wink*

All in all, I think this book is a good read. Not as mindblowing-ly awesome as ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ has been, but it was great reading about Atticus and Jean Louise again, and the central message about racial issues remains. And perhaps some of us just need to hear it again from Harper Lee.🙂

As Dr Finch says, on p264, “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.” What does your conscience say to you today about the way racial issues are playing out in your country, in the world you live in, and your response to those issues?🙂