Go Set a Watchman

Book review by
Mary Cosola, Common Sense Media
Go Set a Watchman Book Poster Image
Scout confronts Atticus on integration in rambling sequel.

Parents say

age 12+
Based on 3 reviews

Kids say

age 14+
Based on 1 review

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Discussion of 1950s civil rights unrest; the NAACP; the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on desegregation (actual case not named but assumed to be 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling); the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution; and the South's resistance to the court's decision. Depiction of post-WWII economic and social changes in America. Some literary references, including The Strange Case of Alger Hiss by William Allen Jowitt and Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." Offers readers an opportunity to reread To Kill a Mockingbird and discuss how authors can recast and re-envision characters.

Positive Messages

Always be yourself, even if it means you don't fit in with those around you. Speak your mind, even if your views differ from those of people you respect. Try to see both sides of an issue before making up your mind.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Jean Louise has the courage to speak out against the wrongs she sees around her, even if it means confronting the people she loves most. Calpurnia is a loving and supportive mother figure to Jean Louise and Jem in their childhood, though racial tensions make it hard for her to connect when Jean Louise is an adult. Atticus is a wise, patient, calm, and kind man who defends an African-American man framed for a crime, even though his views on race and segregation may be upsetting to many readers. Uncle Jack is a mentor to Jean Louise and helps her sort through her feelings when her world comes crashing down around her, even though he backhands her to get her attention on one occasion.

Violence

Reference to brother choking sister. Adult hits kid with a switch as punishment. Hair pulling. Man killed by drunk driver. Man backhands a woman in the mouth and draws blood.

Sex

Kissing.

Language

Some characters infrequently use the "N" word. Infrequent swearing includes "damnation," "hell," "God," "Lord," "Christ," "butt," "damn," "ass," "goddamned," "son of a bitch," "Jesus Christ," and "bastard." 

Consumerism

Most brands used for era-appropriate scene-setting, including General Motors, Buick, Seagram's Seven whiskey, Coca-Cola, Alka-Seltzer, Ford, Chevrolet, Willys cars, Vitalis, Good Housekeeping, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults and teens smoke; adults drink; historical reference to getting surveyors drunk to alter local maps; two characters drink and drive, one kills a pedestrian; character talks about learning to chew tobacco.

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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byJcn November 12, 2015

Fantastic book though for adults

This book is one of the paragons for literature and the furtherance of intellectual development. It is a fantastic appreation of the culmination of racism and b... Continue reading
Adult Written byDylan R. September 26, 2016

great book

Its a great book.
Teen, 15 years old Written byBrigidArmbrust July 14, 2018

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?

Book details

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

For kids who love historical fiction and books about civil rights

Our editors recommend

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality and learning potential.

Learn how we rate