Review: Go Set a Watchman
by Hana Tatsutani on Friday, October 2nd, 2015
(Spoiler Alert) On July 14th 2015, Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was published in the United States. Although written before To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel takes place around ten years after the famous book and follows a twenty-something year old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch.
Go Set a Watchman, originally completed in 1957, was presented to Harper Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff. Hohoff saw potential in the manuscript, but did not think it was ready for publication. She suggested to Lee that she focus on Jean Louise’s flashbacks to her younger self, Scout. Lee took this advice and in 1960 published the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird.
In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise, known to most as Scout, returns to Maycomb Alabama on her yearly visit home. The book notes that Jean Louise’s brother, Jeremy “Jem” Finch, a past character in To Kill a Mockingbird, has died of the same heart condition that killed their mother. Shortly into her visit, Jean Louise is shocked to learn that her father, Atticus, has attended Ku Klux Klan meetings and has associated himself with radical segregationists. Initially devastated and angry at discovery, Jean Louise lears to acccept her father as a real human being rather than the idol she once thought him to be.
The publishing of Go Set a Watchman decades after it was originally written has been largely controversial. Some believe that publishers took advantage of 89-year-old Harper Lee who once vowed that she would never publish another novel. Others have declared it suspicious that the announcement of Go Set a Watchman’s release came just three months after the death of Lee’s sister and caretaker, who guarded her best interests for many years.
Regardless, Go Set a Watchman’s success in sales is undeniable, setting a record for the most pre-ordered book in HarperCollins history. Amazon claims that no book has been pre-ordered from their site more since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Another aspect of the novel that has been exceedingly controversial is the portrayal of the beloved character Atticus Finch. In To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus is a hero, a white lawyer who uses his skills to fight for the justice of a black boy falsely accused of raping a white girl. However, in Go Set a Watchman, Atticus, to the shock of Scout and readers alike, transforms into an unrecognizable, aging racist. At one point he asks his daughter “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?” Although many readers have found this unexpected portrayal disturbing and upsetting, others have seen value in this version of Atticus, calling it complex, truthful, and more representative of the time period.
Marshall Sloane (Class II) positively suggests that the book, along with this version of Atticus, “portrays a more mature and interesting look at race relations in the United States.”
Ms. Marianelli, a former member of Milton’s English department, also interprets this version of Atticus differently than most. She explains that Atticus attended the Klu Klux Klan meeting in order to see who in the community was a part of this group. His asking Scout if she “wanted negroes in our school” was his way of prompting her to be honest with herself, not necessarily making a statement about his own feeling on the issue. Moreover, Ms. Marianelli points out that Atticus’ actions have always been fueled by his pursuit of justice—in the Tom Robinson case and otherwise—and this characteristic remains unchanged in Go Set a Watchman.
To many, the latest from Harper Lee does not compare to her first and most notable publication. It is an easy read that provides depth to the characters we once fell in love with.
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