Friday, July 17, 2015

"Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee (2015)

I have been waiting for this book since 1966 when I first read “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I was 12 years old and found the book in the school library. The title intrigued me, and the book became a lifelong friend. I had not yet seen the movie and had only just taken my first trip down south with my family. The South was still the south of Jim Crow; though in its dying day at the time.

Here is the short version: Scout comes home and finds the idyllic town changed; it is charged with a racism she never saw in her sepia toned memory. The dichotomy of the Southerner at the time of this novel was that of Christian values versus Anglo-Saxon supremacy. You can throw in the Civil War if you’d like, though I doubt it would make much difference. This was a dying culture which; after almost 100 years; was still advocating gradualism at a time when the people affected were demanding change “now”.

Scout discovers her father is human and has a need of being able to control that change in society which; though inevitable; could be delayed under the guise of Christianity and Gradualism, much to Scout’s dismay. The conflict which ensues takes her back through some of her own memories; as well as new discoveries. Just as she is about to leave Maycomb for good her Uncle Jack has a final confrontation with her in which he sets her straight on the history and experience of Civil Rights as he sees it. He is surprisingly adept at turning Scout’s mind around about leaving the South forever. He feels that to truly change the place she needs to come home and lead by example.

The dialogue in some spots is over emoted; but the messages on both sides of the issue are clearly stated. And the dilemma of the Southerner of Scout’s generation is laid bare; were the sepia toned memories just that? Or were things really better for everyone concerned when the lines of demarcation were more clearly defined? And, finally, is there really a middle ground to this issue at all?

Well worth the wait and thanks to Sue for buying this for me at lunchtime on Tuesday when it was released. Now, my more detailed analysis;

I have been waiting for this book since 1966 when I first read “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I was 12 years old and found the book in the school library. The title intrigued me, and the book became a lifelong friend. I had not yet seen the movie and had only just taken my first trip down south with my family. The South was still the south of Jim Crow; though in its dying day at the time.

Marja Mills book “The Mockingbirds Next Door” is almost a pre-requisite if you are to get the full benefit of this book. That book, written with the help and consent of Ms. Lee and her older sister Alice, chronicled the real life of the 2 sisters who lived in a modest house; eschewing many modern conveniences, and choosing mostly to communicate by fax machine, even with their neighbors and closest friends. An understanding of the iconic author’s day to day life in her later years will go a long way towards understanding the full scope of this book. In addition you will see Scout as Jean Louise; and vice versa.

To begin with the reader must be familiar with the title’s origin in Scripture. It appears in Isaiah 21:6 which reads “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

There is an article on by Wayne Flynt, a friend of Harper Lee and the Baptist minister who appears in Marja Mills book; his take on the title, from his view as a Baptist minister; is that “Go Set a Watchman’ means, ‘Somebody needs to be the moral compass of this town. ‘Isaiah was a prophet. God had set him as a watchman over Israel. It’s really God speaking to the Hebrews, saying what you need to do is set a watchman, to set you straight, to keep you on the right path. What more elegant title could there be?”

The intent of the title is to set the tone of the 1950’s against the more sepia like era of the 1930’s, when everybody had a defined place in the local social structure. The upheaval of the Civil Rights movement threatened to knock many Christians off the true path; hence the reminder to set a watchman against that occurrence. Now that we understand that we can deal with the book itself.

When Jean Finch returns home from New York City to the small town of Maycomb she is almost immediately aware of a sea change in the attitudes of the white residents towards the town’s Negro population. She is taken aback by this; after all she was raised, like so many others of her generation; by a “colored” woman whom she had always considered to be a surrogate mother. Her own mother passed away before she was old enough to remember. Indeed it was the reliable Calpurnia who ushered the confused Jean Louise into womanhood; making up for the lack of a mother to impart that information which is so necessary for a daughter to know.

To further confuse; make that infuriate her; is that both her intended fiancée Hank, and her father, Atticus; whom she idolizes; have both become involved with the White Citizen’s Council in a quest to thwart the advance of the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement in their town. Scout is appalled at what she sees while looking on at a meeting of the group in the very courthouse where Atticus had so eloquently defended Tom Robinson for a crime he did not commit in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She cannot reconcile the man she knew then with the man she sees before her now.

Complicating the situation is the drunken driving accident by one of the Calpurnia’s children; which kills a white man. Mr. Finch has been asked to defend him. His partner Hank; the prospective son-in law; refuses the case in Atticus’ name, but Atticus takes the case anyway. His motive, however, is suspect to Jean Louise when she hears him state that if he doesn’t take it and plead guilty, then some NAACP attorneys will show up to defend him, bringing change; and possibly even violence; to the town. He is also an adherent of White Supremacy, which makes his daughter despise him even more.

It is interesting to note that Jean Louise; early on in the book; faces the dichotomy which is inherent in most Southerners of her era; a total distrust of everything from Washington, D.C. In Jean Louise’s case this distrust begins early on in the narrative; before she learns of her father’s racist attitudes.

She remembers the patch of earth by the school where she used to play a game called “Tip Top”. That area was paved over by a WPA project and resulted in so many skinned knees that the children were forced to play elsewhere. This, she says, was her first taste of that resistance to change. To put it more plainly; she is saying that not only had the federal government changed the rules; but also the game. This metaphor comes back to haunt her later on when she is forced to deal with her Uncle Jack who just may be the real hero of this story.

But it is how her father and the citizens of Maycomb handle that change is what drives her distaste for them. Even reliable Calpurnia, who raised Jean Louise and her brother Jem, has changed. She now admits to having hated the system under which she so faithfully served the Finch’s; calling into question whether that love which Jean Louise perceived was real.  And if it wasn’t; then the question arises, what is real and what is not? What is right and what is wrong? Remember, this was supposed to be a relaxing summer trip home…

As she comes close to the verge of leaving Maycomb for good it is her beloved Uncle Jack; lost in his own world of reverie; who saves the day and makes her understand that we are all bigots in our own ways. He also makes her realize that the only way to change Maycomb for the better might be if she came home to live there, leading by quiet example rather than urging sudden change from afar. (Uncle Jack also imparts a secret to Jean Louise which will surprise the reader; I know it did me!)

This book was written before “To Kill a Mockingbird” and in some ways is its polar opposite. The sepia toned Maycomb of that book is a child’s view of life in the Jim Crow south. “Go Set a Watchman” is a mature; though sometimes jarring; look at the realities beyond the rosy pictures we all tend to paint of our own, sometimes flawed lives.

For the review of the Marja Mills book "The Mockingbird Next Door" see the following link;

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