87. ‘go set a watchman’ by harper lee… plus a copy of ‘mockingbird’

Back in April 2020, I reviewed and gifted forward Mum’s copy of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Such a fine novel, first published in 1960 and one which firmly holds a place as a ‘must read’ in my opinion, as well as that of many others more qualified than I to make such a statement – and, as far as was previously known, it was the only novel written by Harper Lee. It tells the tale of a sleepy, small Southern town in the 1930’s through the eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, the children of widowed lawyer Atticus Finch, as Atticus defends a young black man charged with rape and murder. It’s brilliant – and I have found another copy belonging to Mum, so it seemed appropriate to gift that with this, her copy of the only other novel written by Harper Lee, ‘Go Set A Watchman’. Read ‘Mockingbird’ first!

This was a surprise publication in 2015, although it had been written in the mid 1950’s, and is set during that time – and is now believed to have in fact been written first. When her publisher asked her for a rewrite, focusing on the reminiscences of Scout’s childhood that pop up in ‘Watchman’, the author produced the astonishing, vivid and beautiful best seller ‘Mockingbird’. One has to consider that much of both the books is presumably based on personal knowledge and experience – Harper Lee grew up in a tiny Alabama town, lived and worked in New York for a while, and then returned to her home town for the remainder of her life.

Those of you familiar with Mockingbird are in for a bit of a shock however. Although the first third of ‘Watchman’ is in the authors familiar lyrical, observational, gentle prose, capturing the essence of Scout’s hometown, a sleepy little back water and its inhabitants, seen afresh through eyes and senses now more familiar with New York life, it takes a sudden turn shortly after a wonderful scene set during a church service – a line that particularly caught me was a description of the choir master dealing with a ‘choir of repressed soloists’ – during which the sermon introduces the title of the book, taken from the book of Isiaiah, ‘Go set a watchman..’.

Scout, or Jean Louise, worships her father – I guess most of us girls do – and of course, in ‘Mockingbird’, Atticus is the very essence of the just and honourable man, un-prejudiced, supporting the rights of all men. This is all about to be turned upon its head, as she discovers to her horror that both he, and her childhood friend, now suitor, Henry Clinton are absolutely not the men she has thought them to be. Her shock and sense of utter and complete betrayal come alive especially in a scene when she goes to see, but is rejected by, Calpurnia, the black woman who was housekeeper throughout her childhood, and upon whom she has depended as a maternal influence, beautifully illustrated by a scene recalling the onset of her periods. The reality of ‘us and them’, even within her own family, horrifies her.

It’s not the great novel Mockingbird is, but is definitively worth reading. It is interesting to see what happened to the tomboy we knew and loved in Mockingbird. Perhaps more importantly, it is also a bold and forceful statement regarding just how ingrained and long term prejudices against race, colour, creed, class were, (and remain). After reading it I was not surprised that in the late Fifties, in America, the publishers suggested a rewrite with a different angle, because this is distinctly disturbing subject matter even now.

I’d love to gift these two books together. ‘Mockingbird’ is sheer reading joy – ‘Watchman’ is far darker and more disturbing. Both are well deserving of a read. Do let me know if you’d like them…or what you thought of them!

Here’s a quick link back to my original ‘Mockingbird’ review…