Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - Part I

I didn't realize that I'd be this emotional about a book.  Yes, I've cried as I've read pieces of literature, felt invested in the lives of fictional characters, had my day made or broken by the fate of a hero/heroine.  But this goes deeper.  It's a little unsettling.

There are many articles bemoaning the fact that Atticus is a racist in this book.  I have barely gotten to the part in the book when that starts to surface.  I'm worried that I won't like Atticus anymore.  I'm worried that the grown-up Jean Louise will not be Scout.  I'm worried that this book - this story of these characters - will cast a shadow over To Kill a Mockingbird and all I feel toward that book.

I voiced my fears to my husband who had some very wise thoughts.  This book was written BEFORE To Kill a Mockingbird.  Harper Lee knew where it was all going to wind up.  She had the character arcs cemented.  None of this is new.  We can certainly take To Kill a Mockingbird and set it alone.  We can block out Go Set a Watchman and pretend that it has never been found.  But it has.  And now we know what Harper Lee has known for these past 55 years - for better or for worse.  She knows how life has treated Atticus and Macomb.  She knows what Jean Loise is been up to.  She went back and filled in the story and THAT was Mockingbird.  The original story was Watchman.  

This whole experience is unique and almost surreal.  For 55 years, To Kill a Mockingbird has stood head and shoulders above most other literature.  Most of the reason for that is because it's just THAT good.  But also because it is an only child.  There is nothing else to which you can compare it.  It was Harper Lee's only baby.

Now we've found a long lost sibling - a fraternal twin, even.  NOW what do we do?  For an entire lifetime we've had a stand alone work and now . . . it's not an "only" any more.  Cue the sibling rivalry!

I know there will now be camps - Team Mockingbird and Team Watchman.  TM will be purists and want to forget that TW even exists.  But TW does exist.  And I'm so conflicted.  I don't want to like TW.  I don't want to even admit that there is a TW.  But I love and trust Harper Lee enough to try - to give it a chance.

I am now on page 107.  So far my favorite part has been a flashback to the days when Jem, Scout and Dill were terrorizing the neighborhood.  There is a charming account of a boring summer day that ends with Dill in a sheet, Scout completely naked and all three of them in Ms. Rachel's pond.  I laughed out loud and embraced my friends again. 

I can understand why Harper Lee's editor requested more flashbacks.  The rest of the story is written well.  Jean Louise is a complex and likable woman.  Henry is charming and the two have chemistry.  The "modern" Macomb is written lovingly, but with a tinge of bittersweet loss of the old ways.  It's nice.  It's engaging.  I want to continue reading and know more.  But the flashbacks really come alive.  They are written with heart.  With vibrancy.  It feels as if the words flowed from Ms. Lee effortlessly.  For that portion of the book (so far), I was home.       

To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book.  I go back and read it every few years - whether I need to or not!  I feel like I grew up with Scout, Jem and Dill.  In a way, I did.  As a child, summers at Cabin 77 shaped my character.  I spent the months between grades roaming the dusty dirt roads of White River Lake, catching minnows and tadpoles, jumping off the dock when we got too hot, and worrying the adults by wandering too far.  I could identify with Scout on more than a few levels. 

My Bigdaddy was my Atticus.  Bigdaddy was my moral compass, in a way.  He taught me that family was the most important thing on this earth.  He taught me that silence is as important as a well timed word of wisdom.  He taught me practical things like how to bait my own fishing hook and take a fish off the line.  And he taught me the value of a good practical joke. 

But . . . Bigdaddy grew up in a time when racism was the norm.  And Bigdaddy was not immune to that mindset.  I don't believe that I ever heard him speak hate (if I did, I must have blocked it out), but I did hear him speak to the inferiority of other races.  He used the "n" word freely, but it was cultural, not a moniker loaded with ire.*  As the times changed, his use of that word diminished.  I'm not sure that he ever accepted full racial equality, but I know that he did mellow with age and with the times.  Or, at least he did around me.

I haven't reached the point in the story where it's evident that Atticus is racist.  As I have titled this post "Part I", I shall promise to address my emotions surrounding that revelation when it arises.

Now, it's late and I have to get up and read more tomorrow!   



*I'm not defending the use of that word.  Nor am I defending the mindset of white superiority.  I am trying to make a distinction between ignorantly following the culture and taking the racial divide to a violent and hate filled level.  Bigdaddy was racist.  That hurts me to write, but he was.  However, he was a cultural racist and as the times changed and he became at least a little more educated, he tempered his view.  I never saw him be mean to anyone nor treat anyone rudely or with disrespect - black or white. 

1 comment:

Karen said...

You also must remember that she evidently never intended for that book to be published. why? Maybe she knew TKAMB should be an only child and stand alone. Or maybe she didn't like the people as much in this book as in the one that was published. I think it is a tad unfair for them to have published a book she never intended us to see. She had her reasons and maybe they should have honored them.