Go Set A Watchman, the second, and only other novel published by Harper Lee, Pulitzer Prize winning author of To Kill A Mockingbird, and the new novel is already shrouded in controversy: Did Lee REALLY want the book published? Was she competent to make the decision? WHY was the book being published now? Was this a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird? A prequel? Or was it something entirely different? The literary furor increased just prior to the publication date as reviewers began to make claims about the book's worthiness, and that well known, established characters were being altered in ways which were not acceptable. . .
There are several points to consider. Go Set A Watchman is the first draft submitted by Harper Lee to her then editor Tay Hohoff, with whom Lee worked for the next two years to revise and complete what was eventually published as To Kill A Mockingbird. Go Set A Watchman is neither an “official” sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird nor is it, completely, a separate and unrelated work. It is simultaneously both and neither. Most importantly, it is a literary curiosity. And it is of the utmost importance that readers keep these facts firmly in mind as they read this new novel about a trip taken by Jean Louise “Scout” Finch from her home in New York City to visit her father in Maycomb, Alabama. The year is 1955, a year after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the unanimous ruling mandating integrated schools, and finding "separate ... inherently unequal.” Tensions, racial and otherwise, are running high in her hometown as its citizens attempt to deal with the changes they know are coming, but do not welcome.
About half way through the book, Jean Louise finds something that she cannot believe belongs to her father, in spite of being told repeatedly that it does. This discovery is the crux of the story, and the rest of the book chronicles Jean Louise’s reactions to, and attempts to cope with, the discovery.
Like To Kill A Mockingbird, this novel is about the loss of innocence. In To Kill A Mockingbird, the young Jean Louise is forced to confront the inherent racism of a sham trial over the false rape accusations of a white woman against a black man, and the resulting fallout on her family and community. Almost all of the issues are seen clearly in the perfect black/white/literal interpretations of a young girl barely over the age of 10.
Go Set A Watchman is a much more nuanced novel. The characters are older and more able and adept at reading the vagueries and grey areas between absolute perspectives. An older Jean Louise must deal with the loss of her childlike belief that her father, and other members of her family do not share some of her beliefs, and that they have committed the heinous and unforgivable crime of being human and are unable to live up to the standards she has set for them. (Many readers have had the same “knee-jerk” reaction to headlines declaring that Atticus Finch’s character has been irreparably damaged in Go Set A Watchman – the irony of the public’s reaction to the story being told is priceless!). While Mockingbird took readers to a place they may never have been before, and made a difficult story palatable and accessible by telling it through a child’s perspective, Watchman tells a story that is nearly universal. Almost every child has had to weather that moment when a cherished adult (whether parent or hero) disappoints them, and the adult is rendered irreversibly human. The fact that racism brings about Atticus’ transformation for Jean Louise, brilliantly adds to the realism and believability of the situation. It is a topic that has caused countless schisms between family members, both in the past and in the present. It is more than a bit troubling that a book written more than fifty years ago, dealing with racial tensions and issues during the nascent development of the Civil Rights Movement, can be read as timely and immediately as is Go Set A Watchman.
Is Go Set A Watchman as good a book as To Kill A Mockingbird? No, but really, could it possibly ever have been? Is Go Set A Watchman a “sequel” to To Kill A Mockingbird? Again, no. The characters and events presented are similar, but they are not an exact match. They share names and traits, but it is clear that this is a very different book with a very different story to tell. Is Go Set A Watchman a good and valuable read in and of itself? Most definitely. And, if we will listen, it has just as much to tell us about ourselves as its predecessor.