July 2015 is rapidly drawing to a close. By now, I’ve had enough time to process some of the ongoing controversy and discussion surrounding the release of Harper Lee’s new-to-us novel, Go Set a Watchman. I have been truly amazed by the variety of reactions voiced or written about this book. They run the gamut from a staunch refusal to even consider reading it to wanting to be the first amongst your family, friends, or book group to dive enthusiastically into it. One comment that made my eyebrows fly towards the heavens was the man who wrote in the Boston Globe’s “Letters to the Editor” section “Harper Lee has drawn a mustache on the Mona Lisa”. Methinks he may have preferred To Kill a Mockingbird! Then, there are the academic and writerly types who focus on the differences in style, characterization, and plot between the two books. And let's not forget those (particularly in the media) who proclaim triumphantly “See, Atticus Finch wasn’t a real hero. He was as racist as anyone else.”
To me, these assorted reactions bear an uncanny resemblance to how Americans treat the subject of racism in our country. Some people choose to see discrimination only in black and white terms, with no shades of gray. Others frame prejudices in abstract language and concepts, intellectualizing any biases they might have. And there is yet another group, made up of people who continue to believe that America can, and needs to, do better in terms of equal rights and respect for all of our citizens, not just a select few.
Just for the record, I liked both books, for different reasons. As a child and young adult, I was greatly influenced by all the Finch family members’ courage, honesty, and willingness to do what they felt needed to be done, instead of only what Southern society preferred that they do. Truth be told, I wished I had a father like Atticus who talked to his children like they were intelligent adults, who made them read to the old lady trying to kick her drug habit, who shot the rabid dog before it could harm anyone, and who, not only defended Tom Robinson against the repugnant Bob Ewell, but guarded the Negro man’s jail cell against the local white posse.
As a young person, many of our lifelong heroes come from books. It’s difficult for mere mortals to live up to our lofty standards and expectations. When I was younger I didn’t really have a grasp on many of the intricacies of racism, specifically how the North and South addressed the various aspects of it. Mockingbird introduced the topic of intolerance in a way that was easy for children, and most adults, to understand. It opened a door to conversations that Watchman, which I found much more direct, emotional, and gritty in its presentation of the political, social, and racial turmoil that was sweeping the nation, would not have. In fact, I believe that Lee’s first novel would have probably slammed more doors than it opened, given the time period it was initially published in.
For some readers it will be easy to dismiss Go Set a Watchman as Lee’s amateurish first effort, a place where she vented about injustice and the sense of betrayal she felt upon discovering that both her love interest and her beloved father were members of a local Citizen’s Council and that her small town, and the people who inhabited it, were quite different from the people she’d thought she knew and had become accustomed to up North. However, I believe that it’s more difficult not to acknowledge that certain scenes ring true and add a highly believable dimension to some of the characters.
I hope to talk more about this in future posts and I welcome your comments in the meantime!