A review of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Reviewed by Tanner Lee

Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee
HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN: 978-0-06-240985-0, July 2015, 278 pages

The beloved Harper Lee passed away this month. Less than a year earlier, the manuscript for her second book, Go Set a Watchman, appeared with some controversy. Questions arose about whether or not she consented to having the manuscript published, and if finding it was a genuine discovery of something that was lost, or an attempt by HarperCollins to make a quick dollar.

Watchman begins with Jean Louis traveling from her home in New York to visit her childhood stomping grounds in Maycomb, Alabama. She sardonically tells others she has been “living in sin in New York,” and she gradually realizes that she is too progressive for her home town. Aunt Alexandra’s tea party friends reiterate what their husbands tell them as if they are axiomatic truths. Jean Louis questions her family’s Cristian values, along with her own, when she stumbles upon a meeting about dealing with Maycomb’s “negro problem.” In one of these meetings, Jean Louise looks down and spots her venerated father, Atticus Finch. This lawyer and protagonist from Lee’s first novel is not the same egalitarian saint as readers remember him.

At times it is apparent that Watchman was the first draft of Mockingbird because some passages are exactly the same. Historical narratives of Maycomb County are repeated verbatim in both books. Originally, Lee wanted to publish a race novel set in the south, and in many ways Watchman meets these criteria. Although this book begins seventeen years after the end of Mockingbird, it is unclear whether it should be considered a sequel.

Watchman is a coming-of-age story about 26-year-old Jean Louise who is racially tolerant and non-apologetic towards Maycomb’s prevalent bigotry. Upon discovering that her closest friends and family have adopted the very social standards that Atticus fought against in Mockingbird, Jean Louise must find her own moral code and identity. “Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.” Jean Louise questions her own prejudices as she tries to understand others.

Harper Lee will always be remembered as a master of the craft – “a Jane Austen of South Alabama,” as she said in response to an interviewer asking about her literary ambition. Regardless of publication controversies, Go Set a Watchman should be appreciated for its landmark merit and relatability. Jean Louise will warm the hearts of nostalgic fans of Mockingbird, and she will comfort those who find themselves questioning the integrity of loved ones as they find break away from old traditions to discover their true self.

About the reviewer: Tanner Lee lives in Ogden, Utah and is working towards a Master of English degree at Weber State University. You can reach him at tannerlee08@gmail.com