Go Set a Watchman is the kind-of sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s enchanting novel that’s read in school classrooms every year and is widely regarded as one of the defining fiction stories of the 20th century. Following Harper Lee’s sad death in February, I felt compelled to read Go Set a Watchman, after loving her first book.
We watch Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch return to her hometown in Alabama from New York, 20 years after the trial that was the focus of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Against the backdrop of civil rights campaigns and societal turmoil, Scout battles to come to terms with the reality of her friends’ and family’s inherent racism.
I say kind-of sequel because Go Set a Watchman was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, despite only being published in 2015. In the mid-1950s, Harper Lee submitted a manuscript for this book to her publishers, but was told instead to focus on the earlier story in Scout’s childhood, which became To Kill a Mockingbird. That initial draft was never substantially re-worked and so we read Go Set a Watchman as a sequel and in the shadow of one of the great literary texts of our time, burdening it with unrealistic expectations right from the off.
That said, Go Set a Watchman is an enjoyable and stimulating read.
The unpolished feel that’s been highlighted by critics is noticeable, particularly in the first third of the book where not a lot happens beyond slightly boring childhood flashbacks. However, the story does develop, as events lead to Scout discovering the realities of her friends’ and family’s racism and increased resistance to the kind of social change that seemed a moral absolute back in New York.
It’s easy to love and relate to Scout, a strong female character battling between the values she holds and the love of her father.
Present throughout is Harper Lee’s genius for embedding morality tales in her fiction. She comments on the messy evolution of society, highlighting that stories of social change are rarely as straightforward and uniform as simplified understandings of history may lead us to believe.
And there is learning here for the world of mental health campaigning – Go Set a Watchman reminds us that societal change is only available to those who are prepared to relentlessly fight tooth and nail for that change.
Just because we’ve had some victories, it does not inevitably lead to more. Overall, Go Set a Watchman is a good book. If you’re expecting another To Kill a Mockingbird, you’ll be a bit disappointed, but if you want to learn more about the characters of To Kill a Mockingbird, I would definitely recommend it. And if you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, I’d definitely suggest spending your time on that beautiful novel before getting to Go Set a Watchman.