Go Set A Watchman: This is NOT a Review

by Angela Doll Carlson November 18, 2015

I don't care much for book reviews. I try to avoid reading them if I can because I want to experience books for myself.

If I'm on the fence about a certain book or looking for a new title and know nothing about the author, maybe I'll dip my toe in that water. I prefer to ask a friend, and it helps if I know that friend fairly well, because reviews are subjective. People are varied and changeable. Reading a certain book at a certain time in a life can alter the way a person sees life just as the circumstances of a life can alter the way a person sees the book.

We take it with a grain of salt, or a grain of sand in the hourglass. By way of example, I'll say that I tried to read Angela's Ashes a month after my second miscarriage. I hated the book. I had to put it down. I called a friend who had read it and loved it.

“How many more babies does she lose?” I said.

“How far into the book are you?” she answered.

“About 30 pages,” I said.

"Put the book down," She advised.

Despite all the good reviews and thumbs up recommendations, sometimes it just depends on where we are at a given moment. Lesson learned.

This is not a book review.

When I wrote about Go Set a Watchman a couple of months ago, I had not yet read a page of it. Despite my best efforts not to read reviews or news articles, I found I couldn’t avoid them. Before I even cracked the spine, I carried the book around with me for a week whenever I went out as an experiment.

I cannot count the number of times someone I did not know stopped and asked how I liked it. I had to explain that I hadn’t yet started reading but was looking forward to it.

The reactions were mixed. Most who had not read it either, some were afraid, like I was, about the content, the controversy, the possible contamination of our shared childhood experience with To Kill a Mockingbird. Some, also like me, were excited to read it. I told people that even though I had hesitations, I was giving myself permission to read it and giving myself the opportunity, too, to like it.

And I did like it. Though, I’ll temper that with a caution that “like” might not be the right word here. I came away with the profound feeling that it was important that I read it at this point in my life, and I’ll try my best to explain that this post is not a review.

I love language. I love the way words work together, weaving in and out, long lines, hard breaks, rambling descriptions that keep me rapt. Harper Lee did this for me in To Kill a Mockingbird, and she does not disappoint me in this, the book she wrote before that iconic work.

I love story and the characters that move that story forward. I attach myself to them. I wander into their lives and watch their world unfold, in happy moments, in terrifying moments. Harper Lee gave me this too, years ago, when I was young enough to see myself as Scout. But I lived in a different world than Jean Louise Finch, both as a child and as adult. As a child, Scout lived in a racially prejudiced South. As an adult, the world was shifting, dangerous and challenging the views of all who lived in those times. She was in the thick of it at all times.  

I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio and grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s. My world was far more insulated, far more segregated. Most of my interactions growing up were lily white because that is how the world was arranged for me in the days before the immediate nature of the Internet.

As I read Go Set a Watchman I was struck by this thought­­—this is how the world was arranged for me. And it felt safe. I knew next to nothing about the civil rights movement when I was a kid.

Go Set A Watchman is also about struggle, still concerning justice and racial tensions, still requiring courage but this struggle came at a deeper, more personal level. What happens when we grow up and begin to see the world with grown up eyes, when our world is expanded beyond our “safe” understanding of our protected childhood?

Though the language is beautiful, Go Set a Watchman is at times a difficult read because the story is complicated, and the people are complicated. They are struggling, rightly so.

The world was changing, and the characters are afraid—all of them. Reading this book as an adult I was moved to tears at moments not just by the struggles of Scout and Atticus, Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra, but the struggles that rose up in me as I sat and read the book. I cannot imagine a publisher in the world that would have touched this book in the 1950's. It is so delicate and difficult a subject, even now, especially now, and these characters are so very human in their engagement of it.

We are still at war with ourselves, where race is concerned. We are still challenging the prejudices that are addressed in this book, still wrestling after all these years. This is an important book for our times, and I can't even begin to explain why. I’m not yet sure of the furthest reaches of it. I can only suggest that we read it and decide for ourselves what impact it might have on our perceptions of right and wrong, good and evil, black and white, and all the shades in between.

Angela Doll Carlson
Angela Doll Carlson


Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Apeiron Review, Relief Journal Magazine, St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling and Ruminate Magazine, among others. She has published two books, “Nearly Orthodox” and “Garden in the East.”

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