Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

I am going to say some things about this book and I am going to say some things about some of the younger and more critical readers of this book. I’m not going to engage in an ugly online debate defending my opinions. They are what they are and you are free to have your own opinions.

I will start off by saying that this book will be a classic. Time will make that so. The level of debate the book has engendered will make it so. It is brilliant and it has layers and layers of ideas that need to be discussed, deconstructed and enjoyed alone and in tandem with “To Kill A Mockingbird”.

Many of the most critical reviews I have read were generated by younger readers. Part of it was inspired by the desire to keep Atticus Finch on the very high pedestal that was created by Gregory Peck’s portrayal. I have to admit that in the reading, there were moments that I too was upset at the portrayal of Atticus. But then I stopped, I thought about it and I changed my mind.

Atticus Finch is a man of his times. He is part of the Reconstruction/Jim Crow South. We don’t have to like it. But it is so. He has always lived in Alabama. These are his people and in this book, he is of an age where he prefers that things change little or if they do change, they change slowly.

Scout is now a grown woman. She has moved to New York to pursue her career and she has had the opportunity to see that the changes occurring during the period of the civil rights movement have not brought to fruition any of the fears expressed by the folks back in her little southern town.

She has worked with, lived beside and ate in diners with blacks and the whole world hasn’t come to a halt. All that has happened is that Scout’s appreciation of the changes around her have deepened. So it is with shame and horror that she discovers racism – not in her town, she’s always known that – but in the people who populated her very own home.

Calpurnia harbors feelings that, though unspoken, the message is clear – Scout is now a Southern White Woman, a Finch, and no longer in need of or under what Scout always saw as a loving protection. Scout is treated with deference by black’s that she has known for years in ways she is not entirely comfortable with.

There are many ideas to be considered in this book: one should have a copy of the Constitution handy and be prepared to consider the arguments that were being put forward around the tenth amendment circa the early 1960’s. Likewise it helpful to understand law and how it is really applied and practiced. Not the idealized version of the movie.

It would be beneficial to have a true understanding of the NAACP and the work they were doing in the north and the south. It would be equally as beneficial to read a history of the early 1960’s to understand the breadth of issues that were being discussed and debated. It is not enough to have watched “Mad Men.”

One of the main things I have noticed when reading criticisms by younger readers and immigrants to this country is the expressed outrage at what was written. There seems to be a tendency to want to re-write the history and say that the views expressed in these pages are not at all representative of the populace. And that would be wrong.

The views expressed were the predominant views of the day. This book is very reflective of those times and of the fear and the anger and the crazy beliefs that prevailed. But this book is more than history.

The other part of this is story is as old as time itself. It is the story of every young person who goes away and walks the world, comes home and is confronted with the views of their parents, now seen through their adult eyes rather than those of the child. And sometimes, those views clash. And that is personal growth.

I think some readers were as outraged by Scout’s growth as they were by Atticus’ attitudes and beliefs and Calpurnia’s real feelings. It is very hard to see everything you thought you knew about a book you loved put into a different perspective. We also need to understand that probably most readers are Northerners, entrenched in the myth of the northern conquest of the South. Read deeper – the north was not as light nor the South as dark in terms of ideals as the history books might lead us to believe. I wish I had a dollar for every person who doing genealogical work wiped their brow while declaring they fought on the Yankee side or “right side” instead of the Confederate side or “wrong side”.

These are companion books. Hard stuff, but companions. Truths can be hard. I encourage people to read both, discuss, read the history and take your time before making a knee jerk opinion on this book. In my opinion, a 5 star, must read classic.


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