Book review: Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

Lee, Harper. Go Set A Watchman. Harper, 2015. $15.99. ISBN 978-0-06-240985-0. 288p. Ages 14 – Adult. P8 Q8

Lee Go Set a WatchmanI would love to teach this novel to a class of secondary students! There are so many rich themes one can draw upon and many of them are relevant today. Using To Kill A Mockingbird to draw them in and establish an emotional rapport, Go Set A Watchman could then guide them in developing their own conscience and world view.

This is a coming of age story for Scout Finch, one of the most beloved fictional characters in American literature. So as not to freeze her in time, readers should know what would become of her as a woman of twenty-six living in New York and then returning home to Maycomb, Alabama where so many of her memories reside.

We learn what becomes of our old friends Jem and Dill as well as being introduced to Atticus’ brother and sister and the influence they played on the young Jean Louise. We are taken back to childhood and adolescence through short vignettes as Scout ruminates about the town, her first dance, and what she thought she knew about the people closest to her.

But times have changed with the Supreme Court ruling that separate is not equal and the NAACP coming into the county and stirring up the colored folk. Jean Louise’s world is rocked when she sees how her father and Hank Clinton her beau, react to their changing world as well as how their mind-set got them to that place.

“Go set a watchman” is a quote from Isaiah that is developed through the story to mean that each person must construct their own conscience and not to rely on someone else; even if that person is a God-like father figure because in the end he is just a man with his own short-comings.

Perfect for young teens seeking their own coming of age touchstones and pushing back on the conventions that the earlier generations contrived. At the same time one can show the historical context in which this story was framed and delve into the mindset of southern people two generations removed from the social upheaval caused by the Civil War and Reconstruction. A study of the 10th Amendment, desegregation, civil rights, could easily extend learning opportunities in a meaningful context.

Humor, imagery, and colorful language are abundant and many portions felt like reading her earlier work. The format of Lee’s paragraph structure was such that I often had to re-read to understand what was internal dialog and what was spoken, as well as who was speaking it! The novel is certainly not a masterpiece in literature, but that may be because she did not have Capote to help edit, or because this novel was actually written first by the novice Harper Lee.

To judge this novel from our perspective in the 21st Century would be a mistake, and to not read it because it will destroy your view of Atticus is ludicrous because that is exactly the story’s point!. Lee captured that slice of life in a time when people didn’t know what the future would hold, but desperately wanted to maintain the life that they had built; where everybody knew their place. But the book clearly pleads the need for people with Jean Louise’s perspective to live in Macomb and help affect change. The book had conflict, resolution, and character growth which was enough to make it a good read for me. Read it for yourself and finish the story you loved for so many years; go set your watchman.

September 2015 review by Doug Hoffman.

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