Go Set a Watchman is an emotional, adult coming-of-age story that explores the issues of race, class, social change, and privilege. Jean Louise, more familiar to readers as Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, must reconcile the father she adores with the man whose social and political views she finds repellent. The publisher's decision to release this manuscript largely unedited is understandable. Even though it can be rambling and even a bit confusing at times, especially when Jean Louise is recounting some of Maycomb County's history or when the writing shifts from third to first person, it stands as an insightful document of how people in the South reacted to change, especially in the early days of desegregation. The book is relevant to contemporary issues, such as the controversy over whether the Confederate flag should fly on public buildings. The dialogue and humor are engaging, and the characters feel real, in that they're deep and complex individuals. Harper Lee's exploration of what it means to be a modern woman in an area that's clinging to the past is impressive. Lee also tackles thorny issues such as women who don't want marriage and children, how to embrace social progress while not losing valuable parts of the past, admitting that privilege allows some individuals to have more social and economic options, and the trickiness of navigating relationships with parents as we become adults. In short, Lee packs a lot into 288 pages.
Many readers will have difficulty reconciling the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, the literary paragon of integrity and fairness who defended an African-American man on trumped-up rape charges, with the aging racist in this book. That difficulty is the whole point of the story, where Jean Louise is concerned. She's plunged into anguish when she discovers the father she worshipped is attending meetings with Ku Klux Klan members to fight integration. The Atticus of Go Set a Watchman still abides by the letter of the law and feels every person deserves justice, but he believes the federal government is overstepping its authority in forcing integration before people are ready for it. The reader, along with Jean Louise, will struggle to decide whether this is how he's always been or whether this is the mind of an aging man, terrified of a rapidly changing world. Lee's handling of Atticus' and Jean Louise's boyfriend Henry Clinton's views on race and desegregation are uncomfortable to read. Lee paints them as reasonable for thinking integration should happen slowly because African-American people of that era weren't ready or able to handle all the rights white people had. It's a sadly patronizing view of an entire group of people long denied their full constitutional rights, but it's ultimately an interesting look at the mindset of many in that era who considered themselves moderate on the issue.