THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS IN MY ANALYSIS. I GO PRETTY DEEP, SO IT CAN’T BE HELPED THIS TIME. I WILL WARN YOU FIRST.
From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch–“Scout”–returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past–a journey that can be guided only by one’s conscience. Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor and effortless precision–a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to an American classic.
First off, let me tell you–because I know how controversial this book is–I was extremely torn on whether to read GSAW. Do I read it, knowing that Harper Lee held off on publishing the book for her entire life–and it only came to surface when the capacity of her mental functions were being questioned? Do we actually know if she wanted this sent out in the world? We do not. In some ways, it feels like a betrayal to read this. In others, now that it is out there, it feels wrong not to read such a historically significant work from one of the greatest authors of our lifetime. In the end, I chose the latter, as part of our AdultBooklr readathon of To Kill a Mockingbird.
I can definitely understand, though, why Harper Lee would not have published this. She wrote GSAW first, but decided she wanted to explore Jean Louise’s (Scout) youth more in depth–so this acts as a sequel to the book she wrote second, To Kill a Mockingbird. There are some overlap in her words, like descriptions of Aunty Alexandria for example. But really the characters are just DIFFERENT here. At first, I thought I was bored, that they needed more development and that’s why she moved on to TKAM. I even reached to our AdultBooklr chat to see if anyone else felt the same way.
The more I read, though, the more I realized that the characters were developing very quickly, in that Harper Lee fashion–just not the way I expected them to. GSAW felt almost as if it “undid” everything that TKAM had done. White privilege and that kind of indirect racism run rampant through this book (I say indirect in contrast to the direct violence that we saw in TKAM. More of a shunning and segregation than prison and guns. I don’t mean it to be less harmful, just different).
It was uncomfortable. I didn’t like it. I just kept thinking over and over, “This is why she didn’t publish it, it ruins TKAM. Her characters don’t match up.”
But then, almost at the very end, there is a conversation about segregation and racial barriers. Atticus and Scout are completely flipped from TKAM and it finally hit me.
Was anything ever “done” in TKAM? Sure, Atticus fought against prejudice in one court case. He taught Scout some great lessons about humanity. Some of the town murmured their agreement, but in the end, he lost. The black man was still killed. Nothing changed. TKAM was a well-written book about the struggle to overcome racial prejudice, but nothing was “done.”
Just like nothing is over today. We are still fighting those exact same battles. And that is one of the points of Go Set a Watchman. Prejudice doesn’t go away overnight. This is a war. There are many battles, not just one. Love is love is love is love is love, but also change begets change begets change begets change begets change….and maybe that second one is harder.
The second point of Go Set a Watchman is that you can’t ever go home again. Not really. Once you learn the truth about something, once you see who you really are and who your people are, you cannot go back. Scout learned what white privilege is, and she was NOT happy about it. She tried to fight within her town and her family was ridiculously patronized.
I’m not sure how I feel about the way this ended. I know I feel way different about the book from when I started–it is not a secondary book to TKAM. It isn’t boring. I wish I would have paid more attention to the first half now. I’ll be adding this to my reread pile, and next time I will read it as a separate entity from TKAM. I do know that GSAW is incredibly poignant to our country right now. Harper Lee, you may not have meant for this book to be out in the world, but we very much needed it.