Go Set a Watchman: A Novel

Go Set a Watchman: A Novel - Lee Harper Sometimes, I read books I don't expect to like, because they have been debated and discussed and hyped and ridiculed and I want to see what all the fuss is about. Sometimes, I find that a book I didn't expect to like is absolutely incredible. I may be in the minority here, but for me, Go Set a Watchman is one of those times.

Go Set a Watchman describes nearly perfectly the experience of growing up and losing your childlike perspective on the world and the people in it, the necessity of finding your own voice and expressing your own opinions, and the idea that you can love someone even when you don't like their beliefs. I have read reviews calling this book a "retelling" of To Kill a Mockingbird, or else a "first draft" of the same. In all honesty, I have no idea how anyone could reach that conclusion from reading this book. The stories are not remotely similar, save for the race-relations theme and the characters, and to call a book as superbly written as Watchman a first draft of anything is, frankly, insulting. Indeed, if this book is, as I have seen repeatedly alleged, an "unedited early manuscript," then I dearly wish that I had the capability of creating something this excellent without any editing.

The biggest controversy I have seen regarding Watchman, of course, is the fact that Atticus Finch is, in this book, clearly and remorselessly a segregationist and racist. But here's the thing: I saw no evidence in To Kill a Mockingbird to suggest that he wasn't a racist then too. In fact, even though Atticus defends Tom Robinson and seems genuinely upset by his death, even though he gives that glorious courtroom speech about equality and the inherent fairness of the courts, and even though he comes across as something generally akin to a saint, he never once says that he believes the races are equal. In fact, his actions and attitude make clear, to me at least, that he very much believes African-Americans are not educated enough or cultured enough to be equal to white people in society, an attitude that remains exactly the same in Go Set a Watchman. The problem is, the initial reaction of most people, especially most people in 2015, is that racists are evil people. And while I agree wholeheartedly that racism is a character flaw which cannot and should not be condoned, we as a society too often conflate ideas of racism and hatred, or racism and evil. There is a big difference between someone who privately believes that one race is fundamentally unequal to another and someone who wants to physically hurt or kill someone because of that perceived inequality, or who carries out or supports acts of violence and hatred against members of any given race. Atticus is a racist, but he still defended Tom Robinson. He is a racist, but he was still a good father, friend, and lawyer. He is a racist, but he is not evil. It is a difficult truth to swallow, and a painful one, but that does not make it any less true.

As for those who seem upset that Atticus underwent what feels like such a radical change in his character, consider this: In To Kill a Mockingbird, a little girl who loves and idolizes her father portrays Atticus as something akin to a saint. In Go Set a Watchman, an adult and college graduate with her own ideas and opinions of the world realizes that her beloved father is a human being with flaws. This does not seem unreasonable to me, nor do I view Atticus as a different person in Watchman than he is in Mockingbird: we are simply given a clearer view of the person he has been all along.

The controversy of one character aside, the highlight of this book, for me, was the character of Jean Louise Finch, so different from the beloved tomboy Scout that readers of Mockingbird know and love, but still the same in all the ways that matter. She was strong and smart and witty and brave, and I could feel her pain and heartbreak as if it were my own. Her growth was, of course, the center of the story, and it was also clear, realistic, and relatable. Characters, for me, typically make the difference between a book being entertaining but average and a book being great: the character of Jean Louise made Go Set a Watchman leap into a place among my favorite books of all time.

Rating: 5 Stars