Go Set a Watchman ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Harper Lee is famous for writing To Kill a Mockingbird but also for something else: she was friend and confidante to Truman Capote and has been portrayed by not one but two Hollywood actresses in movies about Capote and his writing of In Cold Blood. Truman Capote and Harper Lee were childhood companions in the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama and remained friends until his death in 1984. While Capote became as famous for his eccentricities (his appearances on The Tonight Show) and his partying lifestyle as he was for the books he wrote, Harper Lee eschewed the limelight and has been, like other writers of her generation, notoriously reclusive. At age 89, she still lives in the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama. You get the impression that fame hasn’t changed her very much.
With the phenomenal success of To Kill A Mockingbird and the equally famous movie that followed the publication of the novel, Harper Lee might have “cashed in” on her fame; she might have written other books or a sequel, but she didn’t. In the foreword to the thirtieth anniversary printing of her famous novel, she said simply that she didn’t have anything else she wanted to say. It doesn’t happen very often, especially when there’s money to be made.
Now, oddly enough, all these years later, in the futuristic year of 2015 (it would have seemed so in 1960), a new Harper Lee book has emerged, Go Set a Watchman. The title is from a passage in the Book of Isaiah: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. Every man’s island, the book tells us, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.
At first glance, Go Set a Watchman seems to be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s set twenty years after the earlier novel, but Harper Lee didn’t intend it as a sequel. It is, we are told, a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was apparently shelved for a different version and hasn’t seen the light of day until now. The publisher, HarperCollins, must have recognized the enormous amount of interest (and the cash potential) in a new book by Harper Lee, even if it is a book written sixty years ago.
The girl in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, is an adult in Go Set a Watchman. When she is twenty-six, on her yearly summer visit to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, she witnesses many changes. Her father, seventy-two-year-old Atticus Finch (the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird) suffers from debilitating arthritis and is not as vigorous as he once was. Calpurnia, the black maid who kept house for him for many years, is too old to work anymore and has been replaced by Alexandra, Atticus’s bossy sister. Calpurnia’s grandson is in trouble for running down in his car (and killing) a drunken white man. Jeremy (known as “Jem”), Jean Louise’s older brother, has succumbed at an early age to the hereditary heart condition that claimed his and Jean Louise’s mother’s life. Henry Clinton, a young attorney and protégé of Atticus Finch (four years older than Jean Louise and a lifelong friend of her brother’s) wants to marry her, but she isn’t sure if he’s the right sort or not. The most significant change, however, is in the social and political landscape of the South. Black people, spurred on by “outside interests,” are demanding their civil rights. The white people who have taken for granted the “status quo” in the South for generations are going to have to adjust to a new order of things. It’s a transitional period in the South, not unlike the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. It’s in this atmosphere of change that Go Set a Watchman is set.
Most people will probably agree that Go Set a Watchman is not as compelling or as nearly perfect as To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead of a five-star novel, it’s a four- or a three-star novel at best. That’s not to say, however, that it’s not worth the time and effort it takes to read it, especially for those who have read To Kill a Mockingbird and/or seen the movie version and would like to know what becomes of the characters twenty years later.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp