When I read To Kill a Mockingbird back in high school, I remember being profoundly influenced by it and having a great time when we watched the movie later that quarter. I even have an idea for a trilogy where the first book has plenty of Mockingbird in its veins. So when I heard earlier this year that Harper Lee had written a sequel years ago and that it had recently been rediscovered and was going to be published, I knew that at some point I would read it.

As it turns out, I got to read it much sooner than I expected: I got an Audible account and two free book credits with it. One of the books I downloaded onto my phone was Go Set A Watchman, and I finished listening to it on the bus to work this morning. And I have to say, I found it to be a really good read…and listen too (Reese Witherspoon does a wonderful job as the narrator). Watchman follows Scout Finch, now in her mid-twenties and going by her real name Jean Louise, as she returns to Maycomb in the mid-fifties (soon after Brown vs. The Board of Education if I’m understanding the hints in the text correctly). When she arrives, she finds out a dark secret about the people she’s grown up with, including her own father, and the revelation will cause her to question everything she thought she once knew, including herself.

Now, a lot of the talk about this book has been centered on Atticus Finch, who has been regarded as the epitome of the 20th century gentleman and what every lawyer should aspire to be. Without going into details in case you want to read this book yourself, there are some surprising revelations about Atticus, his behavior and his past, that make you question everything you once knew about the man and try to integrate this new information in with the existing image of him in your head. Even after reading the book and coming to terms with this new information, I still find it unbelievable. And my image of him…it’s changed, I’ll admit that.

Now, those of you who have read the book or heard the rumors may wonder why Harper Lee wrote such a memorable character like Atticus in such a shocking way. Well, I think I know why: Mockingbird was written from the first-person and from a child’s standpoint with a child’s understanding. Watchman, taking place twenty years later, is written in the third-person and through the lens of an adult. Furthermore, it’s an adult who is dispelling old childhood notions about her town, her loved ones, and even herself.

In a way, Watchman is another coming of age novel, with Jean Louise Finch growing up in the course of the novel and coming to truly understand the people around her and even understand herself at times. The novel also explores trying to find common ground when other peoples’ beliefs seem morally wrong to you, and of course, racism is a big thing, no doubt about that, as well as what it means to be a Southerner in rapidly-changing times.

Of course, there is more to talk about with Watchman. Harper Lee’s prose is as strong as it was when Mockingbird came out back in the 1960s, the narrative filled with simple yet beautiful prose. She’s able to balance the serious issues Jean Louise has to face with the humorous vignettes of her life growing up, learning about where babies come from and her first prom, among others. And when we read the more dark and serious bits going on in the novel’s present, the glimpses into Jean Louise’s psyche show the struggle she is having with her own emotions as well as with the people around her. You’ll want to keep reading till the very end, and when you do reach it, you’ll be left with a sense of awe and cheer, as novels of this caliber should do.

Ultimately I can’t guess what Watchman’s legacy will be. Some people will choose to ignore it or block it out of their consciousness in preference to the heartwarming first book. For whatever reason they want to do that, I can’t blame them. I also doubt that a movie will be made of Watchman, and if one is made I’m inclined to believe that it will probably be terrible (though if they made a remake of Mockingbird, I’d have Zachary Quinto play Atticus).

In my own opinion though, I have the feeling that Watchman has the potential to grow until it becomes as much a classic as its predecessor. I know not everyone will love it and they may hate it for changing their perceptions of the first book (which it will), but I think this is definitely a book that should be read and discussed by all who are familiar with and loved Mockingbird.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Go Set A Watchman a 4.9, which it earns with every sentence on every page. It’s a great book, beautifully written and telling a truly engaging story. And that’s all one can ask for when they read a good book, isn’t it?

  1. Okay, I had to skip the last 2/3 for fear of spoilers but I so, so, so want to read this book and your rating made me feel better – I’ve been a bit worried about sequels that come out years later ever since the sequel short story to the Last Unicorn…

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