Is ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Worth The Wait?

The book arrives just in time for America’s renewed discussion on race and racism.

By Emily DonahueJuly 14, 2015 11:50 am,

Boo Radley. Atticus Finch. Scout.

These names resonate with Americans of all ages who grew up reading one of the most beloved novels of the 20th century. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published in 1960 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has charmed readers for 55 years with its warmth and humor, on top of dealing with the serious issues of race and racial inequality.

For the past five decades, Harper Lee became infamous for never publishing another novel. That is, until today – when “Go Set a Watchman,” 58 years in-the-making, hit bookstores worldwide. Clay Smith, Texas-based editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews, stayed up all night reading one of the most anticipated novels of this century so far to discuss his findings.

“This novel is definitely worth reading,” he says. “It has all of the warmth of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird;’ it has her beautiful idiomatic phrasing that is so peculiar to the place where she comes from. … It has all the humor and warmth of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, but it is much darker.”

‘Go Set a Watchman’ was in fact the first novel that Lee wrote – what could be considered the first draft of ‘Mockingbird.’ When she submitted a copy to her editor back in the 1950s, however, he asked her to move the story 20 years earlier to the Great Depression. Watchman sees Jean Louise Finch – better known as Scout – as an adult living in New York City in the mid-50s. She has become a more cynical and worldly person, but still visits her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama for two weeks each year.

“The issue at the heart of this novel is that this is a story about a woman who has gone home and does not recognize anything about it,” Smith says. “ She had this love and affection for this place she once knew and feels like she doesn’t fit in at all – it’s a pretty tough place to be.”

In the novel, without giving away any spoilers, Jean Louise follows her father, Atticus, and boyfriend Hank one day to a White Citizens Council meeting, otherwise known as the segregationist councils of the mid-1950s. Coincidentally, this subject matter resonates surprisingly well with recent events: Dylan Roof, the Charleston shooter, belonged to such a white supremacist group.

“I’ve heard from a lot of readers who say that they don’t want to read this book because it complicates this sort of noble virtuous Atticus Finch who’s the star of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’” Smith says. “And that’s perfectly fine, but this book is more reflective of the way we have to wrestle with race in the country today.”

For the full interview and a passage from the book, listen to the audio at the top of the page.