As with millions of readers, I’ve long loved To Kill a Mockingbird and waited with great excitement for the release of Go Set a Watchman. As the release date of Watchman drew near, my anticipation became tainted with dread as social media posts panned the book and blog posts advised readers to avoid this new book.
Go Set a Watchman takes place several years after Mockingbird. A now 26-year-old Scout returns to Maycomb from New York for her annual visit home. Atticus is still practicing law despite his crippling pain from rheumatoid arthritis. Junior lawyer, Hank, is Atticus’s right hand man and longs to marry Scout. Calpurnia is present in this tale but Jem and Dill are not.
Over the course of two days, Scout learns an ugly truth about her beloved father, her intended beau and her dear Calpurnia, hence the firestorm of complaints and dissatisfaction expressed online. Many readers and reviewers are distressed the noble hero is revealed to be a racist. This is a hard pill for a reader to swallow given our previous experience with Atticus Finch in Mockingbird. It doesn’t seem to fit the character we loved; which is exactly how Scout feels upon this heartbreaking discovery. I believe Watchman, at its core, is about a young woman realizing (rather late) her loved ones, especially her father, are fallible human beings. A realization of this nature, no matter when it occurs in life, can be a devastating discovery.
Watchman does have some problems. It could do with another edit. The flashbacks to Scout’s childhood are abrupt. The emotional payoff a reader may be expecting does not deliver. From that point of view, Watchman might be considered a bust but I do believe it’s worth reading.
Watchman was written first in the mid-1950s. Mockingbird was published in 1960. These are important facts to keep in mind while reading Watchman. As a writer, I enjoyed reading Watchman and seeing glimpses of the author Lee would eventually become. Lee based these characters and setting on her own childhood. I think we see pieces of Lee in Scout. With that in mind, I think Lee took to heart a piece of advice most writers hold dear: write what you know. I suspect Go Set A Watchman is a case of Lee writing what she knew and To Kill A Mockingbird is more of what she wished the world could be. In that light, it’s fascinating to compare both books and to see how Lee grew as a writer.