Book Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Posted October 20, 2020 by Amber in Reviews / 0 Comments

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman

by Harper Lee

Series: To Kill a Mockingbird #2
Publisher: HarperCollins on July 14, 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction
Target Age Group: Adult
Rating: ★★★½

Check out this book on Goodreads

Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch—"Scout"—returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise's homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past—a journey that can be guided only by one's conscience.


Ooooh, I liked this.

This book is one big uncomfortable discussion and I’m so glad I read it in 2020 because I think the conversation is super relevant.  I know Go Set a Watchman was met with a lot of criticism and I want to discuss that too, but as a conversation and a character study, this was good.

In short, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is a young woman now, and when she returns to Maycomb from New York, she realises everyone she loves is racist!  Relatable, anyone?  Jean Louise spends Go Set a Watchman coming to understand this new perspective she has on the world, the way her old home has changed, or that maybe it hasn’t and she’s changed.  There are different levels to this – at first she’s frustrated by the little things – people gone and buildings changed.  It slowly evolves into the way the world has changed.  The way people think is still very much the same, but her expanded awareness doesn’t have room for that anymore.  We also witness Jean Louise – and indeed, all of America – come to the dawning realization that their White Knight is not so perfect after all.

And I loved it.

Really.  Because I think the discussion on racial prejudice in To Kill a Mockingbird was good (although it’s been YEARS since I read it), but this takes it to a whole new level.  It reminds me of something Ibram X. Kendi says in How To Be An Antiracist – we have to make constant conscious decisions to be antiracist.  Making out a character to be a symbol that way Atticus has been made out, based on a single act, does not give us the full picture of the man.  One antiracist thing does not an antiracist make.  And I so, so loved Jean Louise’s courage in confronting the men in her life about their racist and racist-indulgent behavior.  Her perfect image of her father is gone, tainted… and so it America’s.

And it’s good,  because too many people make themselves out to be Atticus the White Knight, when they are really Atticus the Human, and they still have work to do.

And Jean Louise – she isn’t perfect, either.  There are some racist things said, sentiments expressed, but her awareness gives me hope Because she sees the problem, sees the need of preserving human decency over preserving a “way of life”.  Jean Louise has work to do, too.  But she has taken the first steps.  And I like to think she could do more.  Of course, we’ll never know, but that is how I chose to interpret the story.

On a purely technical level, this book is not exciting.  There’s not a Beginning, Middle, and End.  Nothing really gets resolved.  In fact, it’s format (if not its length) would have been better suited to a novella.  There’s a lot of time spent reminiscing that could have been skipped.  It would have been a better book from a plot, pacing, and templating perspective if it focused more clearly on the racism Scout found in Maycomb, and that alone.  It also doesn’t have resolution, not really.  I like to think that Jean Louise continues to come home regularly and finds like minded people in her community, and they start the hard work of changing Maycomb to be an inclusive place.  I like to think that she continues to better herself, and works to be a better and better ally.  But it’s not set in stone – there is no ending or satisfying conclusion.  There is no possibility of further books, so the perceived ending is what I want and need it to be.

Another thing worth discussing about Go Set a Watchman is whether or not Harper Lee is writing out of her lane.  With this particular book, I don’t think she is.  Lee wrote about white people being racist.  She wrote about white perspectives.  She condemned them, although I assume she speaks through Jean Louise and not through Atticus and Hank, but she still spoke about her race.  I’m not in a position to judge how she wrote or presented her Black characters, but I feel as though the story as a whole, since it was talking about the white experience and not the Black one, was in her rights to write.

Honestly, for myself?  I’m glad Go Set a Watchman was published.  I’m also glad about To Kill a Mockingbird and that rejections of Watchman pushed Lee to write Mockingbird.  I think the evolution is important.  I think the muddled character of Atticus is important – and no, I don’t think it’s a “gross redirection of character” or whatever.  I think it’s revealing and honest – racism isn’t one thing or the other.  Atticus can stand up for a Black man in court, and still not want Black children in his county’s schools and yes that is racist and they are not mutually exclusive.  It’s a whole discussion and the last thing y’all need is me, a white woman, lecturing about race.  I’ll leave it to those who are more qualified.  But do think that this was well worth the read.

Let your heroes crumble – especially when you were idolizing a golden calf to begin with.

Ratings Breakdown

Setting: ★★★
Plot: ★★★
Characters: ★★★
Writing: ★★★ 1/2
Pacing: ★★★
Narrator: ★★★★★
Personal Enjoyment: ★★★★★

three and a half star rating


In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch loses one of her heroes – have you ever lost one of yours?  If so, how did you react?  Did you grow beyond them?  I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments! <3

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