If you grew up in the U.S. back in the 1970s and 1980s, you probably read To Kill a Mockingbird in school. Harper Lee’s coming-of-age story was mandatory reading when I was in eighth grade, but the book left an impression on me and I re-read it when I was a sophomore in high school.
Go Set a Watchman was originally touted as a sequel to Mockingbird. Later, it was revealed that Watchman was actually the original story that Lee wrote and submitted to her publisher. From what I read, the publisher liked the story, but thought it would be more interesting to focus on the younger version of the protagonist, so Lee went back and rewrote the entire novel. That’s how we ended up with Mockingbird.
However, Watchman still works as a sequel. The basic premise is that the protagonist, Jean Louise (Scout), returns home to Maycomb, Alabama for her annual visit. What she ends up discovering, however, is that her small-town world isn’t what she grew up thinking it was, nor are the people she grew up with. The book follows as she learns these hard truths and tries to come to terms with them.
The first half of the book is mostly set up. For those who haven’t read Mockingbird, this is fine because it introduces the characters and the dynamics of the cast. For someone like me who read and fondly remembers the first book, it was somewhat tedious, but later I was glad that Lee went through the trouble. What I remembered was young Scout’s views on things and how she interacted with her friends and family. Seeing things from her adult point of view was helpful, especially in light of the changes she has to deal with.
The second half of the book…well, I’ll admit I had a hard time getting through it. This isn’t because of the writing or the story, but because of what Jean Louise has to go through, the hard truths she discovers. The story in Watchman takes place not long after Brown vs Board of Education is decided (desegregating public schools), and seeing as how the story takes place in rural Alabama, you can imagine how well things are going.
Jean Louise was always strong-willed and saw everyone as equals. She wasn’t one to judge a person on skin color, which already made her an oddity in her small town. After spending several years living in New York, her views are even more at odds with her friends and family back home.
And sadly, the race issues covered in this book are still timely. It’s unfortunate to see how some things have changed, but so many other things, like ignorance and prejudice, haven’t changed a bit.
But the story isn’t just about race, it’s also about growing up and learning that our parents aren’t who we think they are. Many people grow up thinking their parents know what they’re doing, have all the answers, know what to do in every situation. But at some point, we have this epiphany and realize that they are just as clueless as we are. We learn they are human.
Is Go Set a Watchman as good as To Kill a Mockingbird? No, I don’t think so. Is it a worthwhile sequel? Absolutely. I think it’s an important conclusion to Jean Louise’s journey to adulthood. Having read a story about her as a child, I think it was a nice bookend, seeing her finally grow up and learn what it takes to be a good person, well, it resonated with me.
However, I feel I must warn you that the language in the second half of the novel can be tough to read. I don’t think it’s any worse than what you might read in Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, but it can still be jarring.
I recommend Go Set a Watchman. It may not be the best novel you’ll read, but I think it’s an important one, especially if you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird.