Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Go Set a Watchman: Begs to Be Read

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I have read all kinds of missives from people on social media and news site comment sections at how horrified they were that one of the main characters from Harper Lee’s beloved To Kill a Mockingbird had changed so drastically in Go Set a Watchman. Many were refusing to read the new novel published this summer. A few who had bought it were returning it to bookstores.

Let me set the record straight, having just finished reading it: Atticus Finch hasn’t changed. Scout has grown up and her world view has changed. So have we grown up and so have our world views.

Go Set a Watchman takes place several years after the close of To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout - her real name is Jean Louise Finch - has grown up, gone to college, and moved from Maycomb, Alabama, to New York City. As Go Set a Watchman opens, Jean Louise is returning to Maycomb to visit her ailing father, Atticus.

In growing up and moving to New York City, Jean Louis has outgrown her Southern roots. She’s really no longer Scout. And so, she rarely revisits her former home town. When she does visit she finds herself traipsing through old familiar territory with misty memory only to be disappointed at how much the town has changed in her absence.

What she seeks in comfort are the parts of Maycomb that always seemed stable to her: Her wise and god-like father Atticus, her stubborn and change-resistant aunt Alexandra, her strange but comforting uncle Jake, and the boy across the street who was her best friend and became her constant pursuer Hank. Yet in the end Jean Louise discovers even they aren’t who she thought they were.

Recoiled by what she thought she knew growing up, Jean Louise rebels on one hot summer afternoon. She confronts and condemns them all and is ready to leave Maycomb and all its residents forever.

Yet it’s those on whom she relied most in her life who come to her rescue and she finally finds solace and grace.

Many have condemned this book - many without ever having opened a page or read a single word - for being racist. They express dismay at Harper Lee for using language they deem deeply disturbing. But before you accept their condemnation, consider this: Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird. Both were written before the Civil Rights Movement made its strides in the 1960s but as troubles were brewing in the Deep South and resentment against Blacks and Civil Rights groups was high.

The character Atticus Finch would have been about the age of my grandfather, who was born around 1900. Jean Louise and Hank would have been about the age of my parents, who were born around 1925. My grandparents and my mother lived in South Carolina for a time, and there it was common to call Blacks negroes and colored and other terms that most of us today wouldn’t consider calling anyone. That’s what my grandparents often called Blacks, stunned that it was considered the wrong thing. This book reflects that culture.

Moreover, I can recall during my youth my grandparents and my parents saying many of the things I read in Go Set a Watchman, even living here in Michigan. Until the urban legends of those misconceptions about Blacks were cleared up, people continued to believe them. Today, those misconceptions are dispelled among most but not all Americans, and they explain a lot about the cultural wars we are experiencing today.

The fact that Go Set a Watchmen sat for decades unpublished means it is a cultural artifact that doesn’t necessarily reflect on Harper Lee today nor necessarily on the South as a whole today. But publishing the book now exposes us to it and allows us to read it and breath it and address it. And it educates a new generation to a point of view many of us may have missed over the intervening years.

But let me get back to a central truth I think many will have missed by not reading this book. And that is that Atticus Finch is not a changed man. He is the same character from To Kill a Mockingbird, but he is being seen through the prism of a grown child who is finally coming of age. And maybe this is really the point of the novel. This book is about the coming of age of Scout.

And if you loved Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, I think you will also love Jean Louise in Go Set a Watchmen. In the same way, if you loved Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, you will by the end of the novel love him just as much in Go Set a Watchman

For all these reasons, it begs to be read.

© 2015. Alan Eggleston. All Rights Reserved.

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