Go set a Watchman



Maycomb, Alabama. 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.

~ Synopsis from goodreads

I read this book last year during our family holiday to Malaysia and Singapore. It’s an odd choice for a travel book, and I really wanted to pick up a thriller or some such read, but in the last minute packing hubbub, I had nothing else left to hand, and so just tossed this in my travel bag.

As everyone knows, this is that infamous sequel (first draft) of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. When this book was first released, it caused a huge stir because of all the various controversies surrounding it:

  • The very questionable fact of it even being published (see this NY Times article for more info on that)
  • The fact that the lovable character of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird is transformed into a bigot in this book

Because of all this hullabaloo, for the longest time I had decided I didn’t want to read this book. I changed my mind only after reading Dolce Belezza’s post explaining the significance of the title, and I was moved enough by her post that I ended up putting this book on my TBR list at last.

Basically the title comes from the Old Testament:

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

~ Isaiah 21:6

My Review

I wish I could say this book lived up to its title or To Kill a Mockingbird. But alas, no!

It reads exactly like what it is supposed to be, that is, a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. And really it should have remained in draft form, and if I may commit the heresy of saying so, better books than this get overlooked by publishers. The only reason this came out is because the publishers knew the furor it would cause, and the sales it would generate.

That said, as a first draft it’s decent. Harper Lee has the amazing knack of creating vivid characters in a wonderful small town setting. She really captures the rural or semi-urban South so well.

However, if read as a standalone book, there is little to no value in it. The charm of the book is in revisiting old and well-beloved characters. Especially Scout, reading this book felt like watching her grow up. And I loved the adult Scout too. She carries a sense of righteous indignation with her and I thought that quality and the way it clashes with her hero-worship of her father was rather touchingly dealt with.

Because of course, as the world now knows, our beloved Atticus Finch is a racist in this book, which was sad to read. I am not very familiar with the struggle for equality in the United States in the 60s and 70s, and some of the laws that Atticus and Scout debated so heatedly went far above my head. But I got the general gist of things.

Overall, I think that what Lee was trying to convey through her book, and didn’t quite get it right, was that life is not black and white, however much you would like it to be. There are no heroes and no villains. And growing up means understanding these complexities in people and learning to live with them.

I also came out of this book with a renewed appreciation for editing. Seriously, a good editor can do such wonders. I mean, this book is so radically different from To Kill a Mockingbird, it required a genius editor with a really critical eye and guts of steel to ask an author to turn the story on its head, and essentially rewrite it from another angle.

Amazing. Just to understand the craft of writing, this book in conjunction with To Kill a Mockingbird is a must read.

You can also purchase a copy of this book from Amazon

  • Vaishnavi Rajendran

    Hello Nishita! Here after a long time! It is good to come back here and see you going as strong as ever! I have had this book sitting quietly on my shelf for months now but haven’t really had an enthusiasm to read it simply because To Kill a Mockingbird is my most favourite book. But I like what you’ve said here about understanding Harper Lee’s craft of writing so I may give it a try after all. But the sanctity of TKAM :-/

  • Very good review Nish. I was divided on this book and after your review I am still on the edge. But I think I will end up reading the book this year.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy)

    I’ve pretty much decided I’m going to skip this book and just remember Harper Lee for TKAM.

    • Nishita

      @bermudaonion_kathy:disqus I think that’s a wise decision, Kathy 🙂

  • Jennine G.

    I agree it reads like a draft of a book. The story seems bare bones, like it needs fleshed out. But I don’t think Atticus has necessarily changed between the two. Nowhere in TKM does it say Atticus is not racist. He claims multiple times he is simply defending an innocent man who happens to be a Negro. He never mentions his stance otherwise. Just that innocent people deserve defending…we see it with Boo Radley as well – an innocent man who needs defended from the gossips of the town. It is us as readers who assume his defense of the innocent is a claim against racism.

  • Thank you for a brilliant review – I decided not to read this book before it was published mainly because I didn’t want to ruin my memories of To Kill a Mockingbird and now I’ve read your review I think I’ll stick with my judgement. You make some really good points about the value of a good editor though!

    • Nishita

      @disqus_mUBrEiIQ5D:disqus Yeah, you can skip this book. It’s pretty forgettable.

  • Wanton Ruminating

    Bravo! You took the bull by the horns. Now that it has been confirmed that the book will in no way live up to what is actually a sequel-prequel, I think I will also brave it out even though it is true that I was heavily influenced by that NY article. Its scary the way our thoughts sync out as only today I read a book that could have done with some serious editing to make it good. 🙂 Great review as always.

    • Nishita

      Thanks @wantonruminating:disqus if you read it tell me what you think. And which book needed serious editing? I”ll know to avoid it 🙂

  • After reading your review I think it’s sad, then, that the publishers took Harper Lee’s first draft and made it public. Seems unfair to the author and sounds like it points fingers to the integrity of her classic. :-/

    • Nishita

      @disqus_Bl6KFNSc0E:disqus Yeah, I don’t really think she would have wanted it published.

  • Risa

    After reading your review I think it’s sad, then, that the publishers took Harper Lee’s first draft and made it public. Seems unfair to the author and sounds like it points fingers to the integrity of her classic. :-/

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