The h2g2 Review: Go Set a Watchman
Created | Updated Apr 28, 2020
We asked for, and received, a review for Harper Lee's 'new' novel. Many thanks to Florida Sailor for sharing his impressions of this remarkable time machine of a book. He's put a lot in context for us.
Go Set a Watchman
For thus hath the Lord said unto me,
Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
Harper Lee is a Pulitzer prize winning American author. Unfortunately she is only known for a single novel, To Kill a Mockingbird – at least until now. Her second work was released on 14 July, 2015, Go Set a Watchman. It was the first book she sent in for publication, but the editors asked her to submit another story based on the childhood memories of her heroine, Jean Louise Finch, who had been a bit of a tomboy known by her nickname 'Scout' in her younger years.
Because of the author's advanced age a full edit was not possible, in some places this reads more as a manuscript than a final polished work. Although we all appreciate the fine work of our editors, this might give us a better insight into the author's own vision.
Why did it take over a half-century for this book to reach book-store shelves? To Kill a Mocking Bird was published in 1960, it is reasonable to assume Go Set a Watchman was submitted a year or two earlier. This was at the peak of the U.S. Civil Right Movement. The U.S, Supreme Court issued a ruling on the case known as Brown v Board of Education (probably the ruling sited, but not named, in the novel) 17 May, 1954 forbidding segregation by race in public schools. On 5 December, 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white man. For the next year most of the African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama refused to board any of the city's buses.
A child's remembrances of a simpler time, before the open conflict began, removed the political debate from a charming story.
The situation was not fully addressed until Civil Rights Act of 1964, following the assassination of President John F Kennedy in November of 1963. There would be another decade of unrest, including the murders of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 – long after the first book's publication. Events between the police and minorities still spark protests in US cities when they are considered to be influenced by race.
We first meet Jean Louise as her train is leaving the station at Atlanta Georgia. We lean that she is in the habit of spending two weeks each year with her father Atticus Finch1 in her home town, Maycomb, Alabama. She has been living and working in New York City, isolated from the changes taking place in her home town.
She is met at the railway station by her old time boyfriend, Hank Clinton, who explains that Atticus is not able to drive as he is having an arthritic flare, he drives her to Atticus' home.
Jean Louise settles into the old routine of life in Alabama. Visiting with her father and Aunt Alexandria, going out with Hank in the evenings, and causing minor scandals.
When Atticus and Hank tell her they have to attend a meeting she assumed it is 'lawyers' business' and is content to remain in the house. She decides to organize things in the living room, like she did as a child. While straightening the papers on her father's table is shocked to find a racist pamphlet titled 'The Black Plague' supporting the rules of segregation, and the repression of African Americans.
She picks it up by a corner between her thumb and forefinger, 'held it like she would hold a dead rat by the tail' and carries it to the kitchen trash can.
When Aunt Alexandria tells her she must respect her father's property, and read the pamphlet carefully, she begins to suspect the truth.
She sneaks into the 'coloured balcony' of the court house, where she once watched Atticus defend Tom Robinson, an African American man accused of raping a white girl. In the courtroom below she sees Atticus introducing a vile speaker who is spouting hatred. Hank is sitting at the table in apparent approval.
Her first reaction is to become physically ill, seeing her role models displaying views that are diametrically opposed to her own.
She then considers running away and never speaking to any of them again.
Or, she could stay and fight...
'Every man's island, Jean Louise, every man's watchman is his own conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.'