Review Blog

Aug 03 2015

Go set a watchman by Harper Lee

cover image

Cornerstone, 2015. ISBN 9781785150289
(Age: 14+) Recommended. Scout is now the grown-up Jean Louise, 26 years old, living in New York, but returning to Maycomb County, her childhood home, for her annual visit to see her father Atticus, now aged 72. But at heart she is still that fiercely independent Scout, the much loved character at the centre of To kill a mockingbird, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee. There is the same feistiness and tomboyishness that draws the disapproval of her aunt Alexandra and the wider community as well - they are only too ready to believe sensational stories of her behaviour. The scenes that recall her childhood escapades with Jem and Hank are a delight, and readers will share Atticus's quiet amusement at the scrapes they get into. Hank the childhood comrade is now her suitor and the romance between them adds an extra interest to the story.
Not wanting to reveal too much of the plot, I'll just say that Go set a watchman is the story of Jean Louise encountering the ongoing undercurrents of racism in the county, and finding how to express her views and assert her own independence. She has to find where she stands, not only with the community but also the people close to her, her aunt, Hank her boyfriend, and most especially her father.
Go set a watchman was written before To kill a mockingbird but when submitted for publication the editor advised Harper Lee to concentrate on the story of Scout and Jem's childhood during the dangerous time that the brave and highly principled lawyer Atticus took up the defence of a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl - it is a time of the Klu Klux Klan and mob lynchings. This back story is only briefly mentioned in Go set a watchman, but it is essential to understand how Atticus became such a strong moral compass for his daughter, and how it was that she managed to grow up not seeing differences in skin colour, only the differences in age and experience. Fortunately for us, Harper Lee took the editor's advice, and we now have the masterpiece that is To kill a mockingbird.
Readers who would like more about the adventures of Scout and her friends will enjoy Go set a watchman for a few more stories of their childhood scrapes and to also find out what becomes of her when she grows up. For students studying the era of black civil rights this book also provides another level of insight into those times. Most intriguing though is looking at this book in the context of discussion about what makes a really good novel, and exploring the idea of how a good story might need to be reworked to bring it to its full potential.
Helen Eddy

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