This January, news broke with the discovery that the original manuscript of Nelle Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird contained the original, unedited version of the story with an almost completely different plot and similar characters. Soon, the news exploded with the revelation that a second manuscript, which was presumed lost, would be published as the sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird — more than 55 years later. Lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird and its characters had pre-ordered Go Set a Watchman as soon as it was available online, making it the best-selling book of the year months before its release.
But it wasn’t all good news. Before its official release, many of those reviewing the book said they were shocked to see that Atticus Finch, a character known for his integrity and noble actions from To Kill a Mockingbird, would have views that differ from his original ideals. Since the release, many readers have expressed their outrage over the “new” Atticus Finch who appears to have corrupt morals. So an obvious question comes to mind before you get out your wallet (or library card) to get a copy of Go Set a Watchman: Will it be worth your time and money to read this, or will it destroy your view of a hero?
Go Set a Watchman tells the story of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch in her 20s, shortly after graduating from college in New York City. In a trip to Maycomb County to visit her friends and relatives, she finds herself at a loss, as her father and hero, Atticus, seems very changed. As Scout observes the town and how it has changed since she left, she reminisces about childhood in a series of flashbacks. The tales from her youth describe her transition into adolescence and adulthood. The flashbacks help give readers context into her life and relationships and her views on religion and race.
Throughout her whole life, Scout places her identity in her image of a hero, Atticus, but when that image shatters, she wrestles with finding a new identity. The two major themes throughout the novel are the search for identity and the failure of human heroes. These themes are expressed in many ways throughout the book, even in the title. The phrase, “Go set a watchman” comes from a verse in the Bible. Isaiah 21:6 (NKJV): “For thus has the Lord said to me: ‘Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he sees.’” But it continues. Verse 9 (NIV) states: “Babylon has fallen, has fallen! All the images of its gods lie shattered on the ground!’” The Babylonian’s heroes were their gods, and they quickly were taken down when brought into the light. As so wonderfully put by Scout’s Uncle Jack,“If a man says to you, ‘This is the truth,’ and you believe him, and you discover what he says is not the truth, you are disappointed and you make sure you will not be caught out by him again. But a man who has lived by the truth — and you have believed in what he has lived — he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing.”
Another element in this theme is that all those we build up as our heroes are human, and all humans make mistakes. Uncle Jack’s wisdom again helps Scout as she figures out what to make of her father’s changes. He says, “You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings.” When we place our identities in the image of our human heroes, they will shatter when any mistake comes to light.
When I first heard about Go Set a Watchman back in January, I was excited. I knew I would be reading To Kill a Mockingbird in school and was glad to see a potential summer read. After finishing To Kill a Mockingbird, I was thrilled and waited impatiently for the release of the “new” book. The day arrived slowly. I went to the nearest Barnes and Noble at 8 in the morning to get my copy — after all, it isn’t every day you get to see a first-edition Harper Lee novel, let alone purchase one. I bought it and walked out with a few free gifts as a reward for being there so early.
I was excited to read the story to see if it was as good as I’d hoped or as bad as I’d heard. I quickly started reading it and found myself pleased by the end of it all. It reminded me so much of my own life: How we place our identities in the image of those we idolize, and how everyone fails us except God. We need to form our identities and opinions without blindly agreeing with those around us. With all the drama, arguing and anger lately, it’s refreshing to be reminded that those we argue with are also human. They have our same struggles and battles, and it’s good to see another’s humanity and similarities after an argument ends. And that’s exactly what Go Set a Watchman taught me.
So, should you read Go Set a Watchman? Yes, absolutely! Even though there are some parts that may frustrate you, the book itself is about that sort of frustration. It shows how to lay aside our conflicts and teaches a few other great lessons along the way. So yes, there are difficult parts, but if you loved To Kill a Mockingbird, you’ll probably like this, as well. I sure did.
Jesse Sheppard is a junior in high school and all-around wordsmith. He's a three-time NaNoWriMo participant, a self-published novelist and manager of a blog.