Go Set A Watchman | Book Review
Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience.1
In reading the long hoped for follow up to To Kill A Mockingbird, one is struck by similarities and differences: similarities in setting and characters, differences from how we expected those characters and settings to turn out. Despite some minor quibbles (noted below), Go Set A Watchman presents a good companion piece for To Kill A Mockingbird, communicating perspectives that are worth consideration.
Lee’s story opens with Scout (who, in the intervening years, has dropped her nickname and goes by her given name, Jean Lousie) returning to Maycomb for a visit. Having moved to New York, Jean Louise returns for visits every so often. In coming back to Maycomb, Jean Louise draws us back to the issues that were the center of To Kill A Mockingbird. Since they are viewed from a different perspective though, the relative mental screen time these themes get is slightly different than in the original story. Racism, which took a front row seat in the first book is a bit more in the background, with the ideas of role models and conscience taking a larger portion of the book.
Despite some of the similarities though, Maycomb has not remained stagnate since we were last there. There are noticeable differences between the two books. On more of an obvious note, Jean Louise is no longer a little pre-teen girl. This adds a different tone to the book. Where To Kill A Mockingbird was largely reminiscent with touches of sarcasm, Go Set A Watchman is narrated by Jean as she processes the events taking place around her. Further, the community Jean Louise returns to has changed. New members of the community are highlighted, others appear to have moved on, and those who are still there haven’t remained completely the same. This isn’t perhaps completely unexpected. Indeed, the development of characters between books is one of the sequel’s strengths. However, these changes aren’t entirely pleasant. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t add much more,2 other than to say that I wish we were given a bit more back-story on some of the changes. That though, is a wish for more frosting. The cake is not particularly impacted by the lack of a dollop or two.
The few quibbles alluded to earlier center on the fact that Go Set A Watchman appears to have been originally written, not as a sequel, but as a standalone book. This idea was suggested to me by fellow author Chris Casberg’s reference to an interview published by The Atlantic. Aside from the thoughts presented in the interview, the suggestion that this was an alternative draft slightly reworked for publication seems to fit a couple of the odd things that stood out to me. First, the amount of background information provided for the reader.3 There are several extended sections of history, whether of Maycomb or the Finch family, which were shared or explained in To Kill A Mockingbird. Ordinarily, a bit of repeated background wouldn’t be a surprise, but rather than serving as a review, these sections retell stories in full, giving the impression that they were designed to provide information previously unknown to the reader. Secondly, there are a couple points where references to the events in To Kill A Mockingbird or the history common to both books does not match the description in the first book. Most notably, Go Set A Watchman describes Atticus getting Tom Robinson an acquittal, when in To Kill A Mockingbird Robinson is convicted. This is a serious discrepancy4, one that suggests a bit more of an edit to make sure there was continuity between the books would have been useful.
Still, at the end of the day, Go Set A Watchman provides a helpful continuation of the story begun in To Kill A Mockingbird. In the questions about conscience and role models that the contrast raises, we are also reminded of the humanity of those who we believe to be incredibly misguided (and/or completely wrong). Further, in a bit of a hopeful note, the book ends with a call to reconciliation and community. Among other facets, it is significant that one of Jean Lousie’s mentors asks her to come home because Maycomb needs her. Not necessarily in the role of directly fighting for justice, but also by “going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.”5 The merits of this approach are certainly debatable, but the importance of caring for the people around you shouldn’t be. And, in the end, that is why I would suggest that you should take the time to read Go Set A Watchman (assuming you have read To Kill A Mockingbird). In the end, it will help us to ask the questions needed to strike a balance between following our individual consciences while remaining part of the communities that surround us. Valuable at any time, this will be an issue which will probably be of heightened importance for us in the West in the coming years.
2. Indeed, given the distance between this review and the publishing date, I’d imagine that the readers who prefer spoilers have already found the cliff notes style overviews they need and those who don’t are still trying to avoid the general information floating around the web and reading circles. Therefore, it would appear that forcing spoilers would be a bit like trying to coax Boo Radley out of his house—benefiting no one and instead potentially antagonizing the few who would like to be left alone.
3. The thoughts here were also planted by Chris Caseburg’s comments.
4. Unless one wants to suggest that there was a second rape trial where Atticus was the lawyer for the defense, but then we’d be descending a bit further into the weeds than needed for this blog post. Feel free to bring up your thoughts, though. It’s something I’d enjoy discussing further.
5. Lee. To Kill A Mocking Bird, 272.
Photo Courtesy of Fré Sonneveld