Book Spotlight: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Here there be spoilers.

When I told the librarian who was checking the book To Kill A Mockingbird (TKAMB) by Harper Lee out to me, I told him I was doing so in prelude to reading Go Set A Watchman (GSAW). The man begged me not to read it. He said that Atticus wsa made out to be a racist. Since he’d read TKAMB as a child who idolized Atticus, he refused to believe that his hero would end up racist. I don’t think I even read TKAMB in high school. I might have seen the movie. So his spiritied dissuasion did not affect me. I wanted to read TKAMB, and I was going to read GSAW. I figured that I could read it with less dislike for it since none of my heros were being dismantled. This time.

Harper Lee is a good writer. She really is. I like the way the story unfolds in GSAW just as I did with TKAMB. Unlike with TKAMB, I had no idea of the actual plot of the book. After a while, I wondered to myself where Harper Lee was going to this story. When Zeebo’s grandson gets into trouble while driving, I thought another court case was going to be central to the story. Turns out that it doesn’t really go anywhere. The plot was an excuse for Scout to visit Calpurnia who, by this time, is old and broken at her grandson’s troubles.

In this story, Scout returns to Maycomb for two weeks to visit her now aged father, Atticus. He’s crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. His sister Zandra takes care of him. Older brother Jem long since died from the same kind of heart troubles that killed their mother. Scout goes on some dates with Hank, but she’s really not too into him. But it’s when Scout reminisces about games that she, Jem, and Dill played when they were young that I feel it.

I felt the magic in Lee’s writing. That’s when I knew exactly why the publisher, who read GSAW first because it was written first, told Lee to go back and write about Scout’s young life. All the magic in her writing is there. Lee wrapped up all the loose ends in TKAMB, like she didn’t in GSAW. That’s what makes TKAMB such a darling book. It’s about Scout’s life as a child as seen through her eyes, allowing for more innocent and open-eyed approach to the topic of racism in the South. GSAW did not have the same magic throughout. Still a good read.

And it’s really not clear to me that Atticus is racist until the end when Scout confronts him about his participation at a men’s meeting with Hank, Scout’s Maycomb boyfriend. A speaker rails against the Negroes (the word in the book and not my nomenclature). By association, Scout assumes Atticus holds those same extreme views until we get to hear from Atticus what it is he exactly believes.

Yes, Atticus is racist, but in more of a paternalistic way than in an “I hate them” kind of way. According to Atticus’ explanation, the relationship between the whites and Negroes in Maycomb County changed after the NAACP came in to try and get judges to start getting Negros on juries. Negroes started (shock! horror! dismay!) having an attitude and getting uppity. Well, hell no! That was not gonna fly with those Southern whites. They thought the right and proper place for Negroes was in obeisance to whites. Since Negroes weren’t gonna stay in their place, the whites were not gonna have that. Hence, the whites were organizing.

Worse, Atticus goes on to explain that the Negroes are like children. If the NAACP was going to come to Maycomb County to rile up all the Negroes to vote, then they were gonna vote in themselves all in a bloc (just like whites already do, Atticus, hello!!), and they had no business in goverment cuz they didn’t know anything.

Well, Atticus, now who the hell’s fault do you think that is? You enslave a people for centuries. Then you only begrudgingly free them. You try to keep them separate so you don’t have to deal with them or work with them. You don’t educate them the way you educate your own children. You keep them in grinding poverty and beat them down and kill them for the slightest social infractions. You use the power of the state, the courts, and the cops to injure and maim and kill and keep them down with impunity.

I only have one question:

WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?

If Atticus thought Negroes needed to be educated before they could run for government, then EDUCATE THEM!! TAKE SOME DAMN RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE SITUATION YOU CREATED, WHITE MAN! THAT’S what you do. You do NOT do whatever you can to keep the status quo. That’s not a real solution. And look at us! It’s decades later and not much has changed. Some, yes. But not enough. Oh, not nearly enough!

In any case, I think Atticus racism is besides the point of the book. The point of Atticus being racist is so that Scout can have a major blowout with her father who she has idolized. Scout learns that even her father, her idol, is a human being who is flawed with flawed views. They had it out. Now they can move on together as two adults instead of father and daughter. Sometimes, we have to accept that someone we love has a view that we hold anathema. If we do not idolize them, then we are more likely to do that.

And here we are back at my librarian friend who did not like that Atticus, his self-professed idol, ended up having some views that flew in the face of his prior knowledge of him. I find it interesting that he and Scout were in the same position. Yet only one of them was able to change, accept Atticus as a flawed figure, and move on.

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