An Uncut Gem: Harper Lee's Novel, Go Set A Watchman

Reconciling the characters in Go Set A Watchman with the characters of To Kill A Mockingbird was a conscious effort that consistently pulled me out of the story. I found the dissonance between what I understood the characters to be based on the first novel, and the characters that were presented in the second novel to be a major source of discomfort because they don't truly align. There are echoes and shadows of the familiar characters within the characters in Go Set A Watchman, but at times they feel like wholly separate people.

I found that if I set aside the notion that the novels are connected, if I stopped thinking of Go Set A Watchman as a sequel, and instead read it as a completely standalone novel, that dissonance disappeared and I was able to focus on enjoying the book for its own merits. There are actually cues in the text that suggest that, though the setting, the character names and relationships are the same, Go Set A Watchman is indeed an independent story, or perhaps an alternate story. Regardless, once I separated the two, The dissonance dissolved and the novel made more sense.

Reading it as a separate/alternate story, allowed me to enjoy Go Set A Watchman as the coming of age, awakening of self-identity story that it is. While To Kill A Mockingbird explored race and class relations in the rural, 1930's South through the eyes of a child, this novel explores how a young woman is able to reconcile who she is as a person, separate from, but still connected to, the people who raised her and the place where she was raised. Race and class are still a dominant presence in Go Set A Watchman, but not as the central theme. Rather race and class serve as the backdrop from which Scout's independence spearates, they are the impetus for her to coalesce into her own person.

As a story, Go Set A Watchman is interesting and compelling. All of us either have struggled, are struggling, or will struggle to figure out who we are. All of us have or will experience the moment of our parents and/or heroes becoming human. Reconciling and accepting their humanness, including their failings, while maintaining our hold on their lessons and how they molded us, is a crucial moment in many people's development of their self-identity.

As a story, then, it is compelling. As a work of literature, Go Set A Watchman is rough. The beautiful prose and imagery of To Kill A Mockingbird is missing. The seeds are there, but the language is unpolished. The description of Maycomb in the first chapter of To Kill A Mockingbird will always stand in my mind as one of most beautiful scenes ever painted with the English language; Go Set A Watchman reads more like pencil sketch on a canvas that promises something beautiful to come.

The ending, too, is unpolished. It feels abrupt and the lessons learned are told to the narrator and therefore to us, the readers. Much of the ending feels like an explanation of the book rather than a realization of how the pieces of the story fit together as Scout begins to truly make sense of her world, and herself, and herself within the world.

Taken as a whole, Go Set A Watchman is a compelling, uncut gem of story, wrapped in rough brown paper, that's shaped so similarly to a gift that you loved before that you're a little disappointed when you work your way through the coarse exterior and find something other than what you wanted. Once you get past the disappointment of wanting what came before, and the unfinished exterior, you find that you actually enjoy what you've been given and wish that it were the final polished product.