Firstly I think it is really important to remember the context of this book while reading it. This book was written before To Kill A Mockingbird. Before all its success, before the film, before we all mythologized it’s characters and it’s meaning. Go Set A Watchman has not been edited in anyway since the manuscript was found and was written in mid-1950s America; a time, place and society facing great change and upheaval.
But in saying all that it is pretty hard to escape the shadow of the book that was published first. To Kill A Mockingbird is held up as a beacon in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, despite it being set in the 1930s. But it’s message of equal rights is a powerful one, not just across racial lines but class ones as well. It is one of the few books taught in school that resonates with nearly every child who has to read it and still means something to them years later. But there is a danger in that too. The idealism of youth, the putting of someone on a pedestal to represent all that we believe in. And it is this danger that is at the heart of Go Set A Watchman.
I fell instantly in love with this book though. Having done a re-read of To Kill A Mockingbird in preparation I instantly fell into step with the voice of Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch. At 26 years old the character we already know is all there, which makes sense because this is the same character, at the same point, who narrates To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise is returning home from New York for her annual trip to Maycomb County. A lot has changed since we were last in Maycomb. The Second World War has changed the entire country but recent Supreme Court decisions mean there are great ramifications on the horizon for The South. Jean Louise returns to a home she doesn’t quite recognize, the place and the people. When she begins to also doubt those people closest to her, her whole sense of self and the world around her she thought she knew and could depend on starts to shift on it’s axis.
As the reader this sense of tilted axis comes earlier than it does for Scout. Because the book was written before To Kill A Mockingbird there are details slightly out of place or missing. Jem’s fate is glossed over to begin with, which makes sense as this was written first, but in the context of the reader it feels slightly callous. The same with Dill. As Scout tries to come to terms with the hard truths she has discovered we flashback to Scout’s childhood and get to fill in the blanks of her growing up between the books and you can see why Harper Lee’s original editor suggested she flesh out the backstory the way she eventually did.
The heart of Go Set A Watchman though is the tearing down of ideals, shining examples that, while noble, are impossible to realize. I can totally understand why many readers are not prepared to have their view of To Kill A Mockingbird and it’s characters change and there is a point a third of the way into this book that totally broke my heart (Scout’s more so). But that is the underlying message of this book, that we do a disservice to what we believe in by putting our ideas or the people we want to represent our ideals up on a pedestal, above reproach. And while it takes great courage to stand up for what we believe in it also takes courage to understand every point of view and to challenge not only differing points of view but also our own.
Much has been made about how our idea of Atticus Finch is changed by this book. But our idea of Atticus Finch has already be changed over the last 55 years. We are more influenced by the idea of Atticus as played by Gregory Peck than by the character in the original book and he has become a folk hero above and beyond what he was ever intended to represent.
For me the character that has always captivated me was Scout. It was her innocence and honesty that drove the story of To Kill A Mockingbird home and it is her courage and dignity that give Go Set A Watchman it’s heart and compassion. For me she is the character we should admire and aspire to. She is not perfect, she does not conform to an ideal, but she is honest and true, stubborn and understanding.
In many ways Go Set A Watchman is a more confronting book than To Kill A Mockingbird. It is much more challenging in its ideas and the questions and answers it poses are not clear or easily digestible. It will divide opinions and we will be talking about this book for many months and many years to come. And isn’t that the real measure of a great book?