Published amid controversy and shaded by early, embargo-breaking reviews, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman starts out on shaky ground, despite extraordinary pre-order numbers. Lee wrote it before To Kill a Mockingbird, but it takes place twenty years later and with many of the same characters.
Jean Louise Finch has come back to her hometown of Maycomb, AL, from New York City for her annual visit, but finds Maycomb changed. The buildings have changed, the people in them are different, and Jean Louise’s mind is flooded with memories. In those flashbacks, there are a couple of charming scenes of Scout, Jem, and Dill that feel very much like scenes that didn’t make it into Mockingbird. The flashbacks are the most enjoyable part, which makes it easy to understand why Lee’s editor originally asked her to shelve this manuscript and write about Scout’s youth.
As many reviews have already pointed out, the much-beloved Atticus Finch is portrayed as a racist. That’s definitely true. There are some truly cringe-worthy lines shared between Atticus and Jean Louise. Lee deftly shows what the horror of disillusionment feels like, that gut-wrenching shock of being disappointed by someone you admire. (In fact, Jean Louise is repeatedly told she needs to see the doctor because her distress is visible, even though the concerned parties don’t know what’s troubling her.) It’s uncomfortable to read, but Lee addresses an issue rarely covered in fiction: loving someone whose prejudices you abhor. Unfortunately, it’s not as successful as it could have been with a good editor and a couple of rewrites. Instead, the world was gifted with To Kill a Mockingbird and all that work went into it and not Watchman. It’s an interesting read, as a companion to Mockingbird, but should be read within the context of it being a rough draft.
The most poignant part of the book for me was Jean Louise’s feeling of homesickness. She no longer feels like she belongs in Maycomb, if she ever did feel like she belonged, and she doesn’t feel truly at home anywhere else. Jean Louise is a flawed, lovable character throughout both books and remains one of my favorite literary heroines.