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Go Set a Watchman
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Go Set a Watchman is the much-discussed, latently discovered manuscript from Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Although it is said to have been written before To Kill a Mockingbird, the book is set 15 or so years after the events of that book, with adult Jean Louise "Scout" Finch living in New York City and visiting her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, for two weeks. Though some changes to Maycomb are happening too fast for Jean Louise, such as the boom in postwar building wiping out childhood places she cherished, some attitudes, especially those regarding segregation, are stuck too far in the past for her. Jean Louise struggles to see where she fits in Maycomb, as a modern woman and a born-and-bred Southerner. The book highlights an interesting time in America's social and political landscape, especially the South's reaction to the Supreme Court's ruling on Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregation unconstitutional. Some of the characters' viewpoints may be upsetting to modern readers, but the book offers a good insight into the mindset of many Southerners during that era. A few characters drink and smoke. Some swear infrequently ("son of a bitch," "damn," "ass," "hell," "bastard," "God," and "Jesus Christ") and infrequently use the "N" word.
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What's the story?
Set in the mid-1950s in the aftermath of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation unconstitutional, GO SET A WATCHMAN tells the story of Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, returning home for her annual visit to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City. Much of what Jean Louise loves about her hometown is starting to disappear: The old Finch family riverfront homestead has been sold off piece by piece, the house she was born and raised in is now an ice cream shop, and new postwar family housing is cropping up in town. The distrust between the white and African-American populations is another change that upsets her. She wonders whether she was blind to it as a child or is seeing what was always there -- but which now is simmering in the civil rights era -- with fresh eyes. Throughout the book, Jean Louise visits with family and friends and drifts into recollections of her personal history and that of Maycomb County. She's a modern, independent woman in a place that doesn't value those qualities, and she considers herself "colorblind" in a place where the white citizens don't want integration forced on them. The biggest challenges she confronts are reconciling her love and respect for her father, her uncle, her aunt, and her beau with her revulsion at their social and political views. As much as she loves the Maycomb of old, she knows that social change is for the best, even if it means she must question her feelings for those people she believes formed her as a person and have long held in the highest esteem.
Is it any good?
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.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Americans react as a nation to change. How do you see people behaving when they're afraid of change?
How do the characters of To Kill a Mockingbird align with their depictions in Go Set a Watchman? Does knowing that Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird have any bearing on your feelings about either book?
Do you ever feel that you get to do things or act in certain ways because of your social or economic status? Do you ever feel you need to conform to not cause problems and draw attention to yourself?
Themes & Topics
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For kids who love historical fiction and books about civil rights
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