It was one of the most anticipated books of the year and with over 1 million copies sold in its first week of release, a tremendous feat in an age when most people prefer their Kindle to a print book, Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman has made history.
Set as a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird but written before the Pulitzer Prize novel, the manuscript is said to have been written nearly 50 years ago but was only discovered about a year ago. After reading Lee’s tremendously controversial second novel I cannot completely agree with this magical discovery, but we will get to that.
As a self-professed book cover junkie (I’ll easily buy more than one edition of a book just for the cover) I am absolutely in love with the orange UK edition of Go Set A Watchman.
The strong typography is the main focus of the book, but unlike the US edition where it seems the publishers bargained on the fact that every reader knows who Harper Lee is, the UK edition reminds the reader that Lee is the author of one of the best-loved books from your childhood. The slight referral back to To Kill A Mockingbird even draws through to the small black bird on the cover. Personally I think it is very striking and with the unusual orange and red tints this cover will stand out on any shelf as a favorite for a long time. But then again I am no designer, I just love well thought through designs and am a sucker for embossed lettering.
Apart from the cover my other favorite part of this book is right at the back. Something most might not even have noticed, but if you’ve studied typography for three years, it is quite relevant. This is the little A Note on the Type section.
Make with it what you will but it is one of those special extras of a first edition literary work that makes me childlike excited.
Getting back to the book itself, I have to admit that I was never the biggest fan of To Kill A Mockingbird. Maybe it was because it was our prescribed book for two years in a row in high school and I have always detested having to read any book twice, then even more so as I was forced. The main thing was that most of the book felt like it was supposed to teach me how to be a good person and Atticus as a character was just simply too good to be true. You can guess that my opinion was not a popular one with my peers, but I simply couldn’t help it. So I wrote Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird off completely after high school.
That was until I read Go Set A Watchman. This time around I still loved the Southern style of writing (one of the few things about To Kill A Mockingbird I simply couldn’t get enough of) and the imperfectness of the text, but I also loved the story. It’s not a very long book, only 278 pages (in the UK edition that is), but it was exciting from start to finish. Scout, or Jean Louise now, is much older than in the prequel. She is, however, a character I as a 20 something young independent woman, raised to see people as people, in a very fast changing world, could relate to on many levels.
This brings me to why I don’t believe this manuscript was “lost” for 50 years. I would rather believe that a very smart publisher had told Lee that if she published this book 50 years ago it would most probably have been banned. At the same time, her publisher believed in her as an author and her writing style and thus To Kill A Mockingbird seemed, for the time, the safer option to talk about racial injustice. A white man, a lawyer, fighting for the rights of a young black man would be much more accepting than a young white women believing that everyone should be treated the same, black and white. Jean Louise is in fact “colour blind”, and even in Go Set A Watchman this makes her very unpopular with her peers. Atticus was seen as a man with great stature in the community and his fighting against racial injustice was seen as chivalrous, but when Jean Louise brings up the reasons for the trial in this sequel it becomes clear that Atticus fought this battle not because of the racial injustice (as was the theme we were taught in school), but rather because of he believed in the law.
It was with this realisation that Atticus finally became human to me. Jean Louise goes through the same realisation and I think it is one that every young woman goes through with either a parent or grown-up who had had a significant influence on their lives. No grown-up is perfect, but sometimes their imperfect decisions influence children to become the better versions of themselves. Jean Louise grew up believing in fairness for all, even if it meant going against the law.
Now this is only my opinion, but I believe that Go Set A Watchman has been published at exactly the right time in our world’s history. As young people, we are a generation who believe in equal rights for all, whether it means saying no to racial discrimination or showing your support for gay marriage with a rainbow flag profile picture. My wish is that people will set their ideas of how this book breaks down the better-than-life-itself character of Atticus and see the real message. To me, the message is that our heroes are not perfect, but that should not change our convictions. Jean Louise is the embodiment of every strong-willed young woman I know today and I hope that people can, like Scout, “welcome Atticus to the human race” and see the beauty of a generation who is willing to fight for their beliefs, but still love those who taught them how to believe.
In essence, I enjoyed this book and it is now a favorite, despite my previous reservations. It is a coming of age novel for all young people and a classic in its own right. Harper Lee has definitely won me over this time around.