Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman

This post contains some spoilers.

Before I get started, I want to quickly address the controversy surrounding Go Set a Watchman. There has been a lot of back and forth since the book was announced, with some readers desperate to get their hands on a copy, and others refusing to read it. I fall in to the former category. I understand the arguments against reading GSAW--that Harper Lee may be being taken advantage of, that the book may have been published against her will, that this is a money-grab on the part of her publisher--and believe that it's possible there is some merit to these arguments. However, it comes down to two issues for me: (1) We don't know what Ms. Lee's current wishes are, or what her present state of mind is, and there are conflicting accounts of both of these things, from apparently credible sources. Her inner circle is notoriously zip-lipped, much to their credit. (2) At one point, Harper Lee wanted this book published. The was the story for she initially conceptualized, and the manuscript she submitted for publication. To Kill a Mockingbird was born from the rewriting of this book, but we know at one point, that she wanted this book to be seen by the masses.

Okay, on to the book itself!

It's fairly clear from reading the book that it would not have been a stand-alone hit or breakthrough novel. Much of what it has to offer relies on the reader being familiar with the world of TKaM's Maycomb, and already invested in its characters (particularly Atticus). Though it was written prior to Mockingbird, it really does serve best as a sequel (even though some of the details don't quite align). It does seem choppy and not fully fleshed-out, but in some ways actually seems to have more depth, complexity, and nuance.

In short, it emotionally wrecked me. I finished it over a week ago, and it's taken me nearly that long to process it enough to form a coherent post. It was well after midnight when I turned to the last page (which probably didn't help my emotional state--I usually have a granny bedtime) and I just lay there in bed, thoughts racing. Briefly summarized, our beloved Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird returns from New York to her childhood Maycomb. In some ways sheltered from racial tensions in a more progressive city, she finds herself in a town changed, and simmering with veiled conflict. The novel itself reflects this slow boil in pace, with the first 80-90 pages consisting mainly of Scout reliving her childhood and reflecting on surface-level changes of Maycomb. When she finds pro-segregation propaganda with her father's newspaper, she finds out that he's part of a racist "citizen's council" and the KKK. What follows is a series of confrontations and an ending that feels anything but resolved and hopeful.

While Go Set a Watchman appears to be primarily about race relations on the surface, like To Kill a Mockingbird, it more accurately uses issues of race to tell the larger story of innocence lost. GSaW explores racial issues, but it also explores how those issues affect our relationships. How do we cope when we realize our heroes are flawed? How do we react when we find them on the other side of a moral argument? It's so easy to vilify those who believe differently (particularly on issues that we feel should be so clear-cut), but what do you do when the person who believes differently is the father you have always idolized, who has always been kind, upright, and just? We're forced to grapple with this with Atticus, the hero figure of TKaM. He's a card-carrying racist, so does that discount everything good he has done throughout his life? Are all of his actions stained? Or is he a generally good person who is severely misguided and dead wrong on this particular issue? Does the fact that it's an issue of human dignity make a difference in our evaluation?

To be honest, I had heard that this book might make me hate Atticus, but it didn't. It made him human. After reading this, I looked back at Mockingbird, and his character almost seemed too simple, too good, too god-like. In Watchman, I didn't hate him, but I did feel sorry for him. He seemed ignorant, and a little small. I even maybe connected with him a little bit, as strange as that is to say--and certainly not because of his racism, but because his racism made him imperfect, and accessible. The Atticus of Mockingbird is the man you wished was your father; the Atticus of Watchman is your father...and your mother, your grandparents, your friends, your pastor. If it hasn't happened already, at some point, we will be disappointed and disillusioned with the heroes of our childhood, perhaps (and hopefully) not over issues of race, but over some other moral disagreement or issue. We will realize that our heroes aren't simply clones of ourselves, with the exact same beliefs and values. With Watchman, we walk through this process with Scout and feel the frustration, disbelief, anger, and profound sadness. It's heartbreaking, and strangely liberating.

There's no clear resolution to the story. Relationships are strained, but preserved. However, there are still conflicting ideologies. Scout does not cause Atticus to see the errors of his beliefs, he does not renounce his racism and join the NAACP. He simply expresses his pride that Scout has become her own woman, and formed her own opinions. So we're forced to live in the tension, to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance, to be okay without a happy ending. And isn't that so much like reality? Everyone we love is not going to agree with us all of the time, and we have to decide whether that means we can no longer love them. We have to try to figure out which differences are worth severing a relationship over, and which ones are not. And we have to decide how to live with those differences should we determine they aren't.

I would love (love love!) to hear your thoughts on Go Set a Watchman and the issues it raises. (Also let me know if this type of thing is something you'd like to see more of, and if you'd like to read along. Maybe we can start an online book club?)

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