Frank Reads: Go Set a Watchman — Part 2: Reviewing the Book

photo credit: my books

photo credit: my books

In Part 1 of this post, I spent some time talking about the issues surrounding Go Set a Watchman‘s publication. In Part 2, I’m going to talk about what I actually thought of the book. So let’s get down to it, shall we? If you haven’t read the book yet and you plan to, be aware that this post will contain spoilers.

Expectations

First, having been following the story of this book’s publication since it was announced, I had an idea about what to expect. I wasn’t expecting a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, and I still maintain that it shouldn’t be read that way. I was expecting a rough draft of the book, which meant that I was also expecting it to be kind of awful, as most rough drafts are (thus the “rough” part). A few weeks before the book’s release date, it came out that in this book, Atticus Finch is a racist. I had adequate time to steel myself against that, as well. You don’t have to like it. You just have to know that it’s there so you can prepare yourself to deal with it.

A few days before the book was released, the Wall Street Journal published the first chapter. This is what I wasn’t ready for: Jem is dead in this book, his existence only known through memories. That was a little bit soul-crushing for me, especially since the first chapter doesn’t say why or how it happened. So there’s none of that great beginning of Mockingbird: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” There is no Jem.

The Storyline

The book opens with Jean Louise (as Scout is now known in her mid-20s) on a train from New York City, where she now lives, to Maycomb, where she will be spending a week with her family. Atticus, now in his 70s, has some trouble getting around, largely due to arthritis (which is mentioned several times). The language is fine, but it just doesn’t pull you in the same way that Mockingbird does. I tried to resist too many comparisons between the two when it didn’t seem necessary.

We meet Hank, who doesn’t appear in Mockingbird, but is described in Watchman as Jem’s best friend from childhood. Now that Jem is gone, Atticus sort of treats Hank like his son — including bringing him in to work at his law office. Hank loves Scout and Scout loves him and they seem to have a very close relationship that involves talk of marriage even though she lives in New York City and only comes home to Maycomb once a year or so. This seemed a little far-fetched, but …. rough draft. Suspend belief.

When Scout (who is nearly always referred to as Jean Louise in this book, but whom I will continue referring to as Scout) gets back to the house, Aunt Alexandra is there. You might remember her as the overbearing aunt in TKAM. She doesn’t play a super large role in that book, but she’s essentially the mother figure (Calpurnia is only present on the fringes), living with Atticus to help take care of him — especially since her own family is gone for one reason or another. To put it quite frankly, she’s a snobby, uptight b-word. She’s always trying to tell Scout what to do and how to live. When Scout asks her how she’d feel about Hank becoming part of the family, Alexandra basically says, “He’s fine, but your stock is much better than his and his family isn’t as good as ours so running around with him in your youth was fine, but now you need to grow up and find someone whose class is better suited to you.” She’s pretty awful. Understandably, that upsets Scout.

But nothing upsets Scout like finding out that her dad is a racist. Here’s where a little bit of background in TKAM helps, only in the sense that you know that Scout and Jem’s mother died of heart problems (in Watchman, you eventually learn that Jem dies of the same thing). So Atticus raised Jem and Scout alone (with the help of Calpurnia, a black woman the Finches employed to help with the cooking and housework, as well as to look after the children — more on her momentarily).

In To Kill a Mockingbird, you see Atticus treating his children as equals. But don’t forget that Watchman isn’t Mockingbird. We can’t just assume that’s what happened. What we do know is that this book takes place as the Civil Rights movement is beginning, and also that Scout holds her father in very high esteem. She’s learned everything from him and adopted his views as her own. Or at least she thought she did. She knows that Atticus defended a black man in a trial when she was younger (this is the only reference made to what we assume became the now-famous trial in Mockingbird). Because of this, she just believes that he isn’t racist. But then she finds out that he attends meetings at the courthouse (along with her beloved Hank) that are basically groups of whites wanting to stop black people from truly being part of the community. Part of this storyline is Calpurnia’s son, Zeebo, who has gotten himself into some trouble and was jailed. It is not until Scout sees what her family’s views are (a view that she doesn’t hold and doesn’t believe in, especially living in New York City) and she goes to see Calpurnia (whom she’d thought of as a mother for her whole life, being that Cal essentially helped to raise her) that she really has an “Oh shit” moment.

See, Calpurnia, distraught over her family trouble, doesn’t exactly welcome Scout with open arms. The combination of all of these things — all of this racial tension — happening at once devastates Scout. She goes home and goes to sleep and remains in a funk. She doesn’t want to see Hank. She doesn’t want to be around Atticus. She gets into even more arguments with Aunt Alexandra about Atticus and his views. Alexandra, having already shared her opinion of Hank and saying that the Finches were pretty much better than most other families in the south, now turns her offensive views to race and segregation. She asks Scout if she would want blacks in her churches and schools and other public places. (Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure it was the aunt who bluntly asked her that, but I could be wrong because it was about this time that racist comments started dropping all over the place and were easy to get lost among, plus it’s been a few weeks since I’ve finished this one, so my memory isn’t quite as clear. Except for that Aunt Alexandra was pretty heinous.)

Scout goes to Atticus’s office and she starts screaming at him. And screaming, and screaming, and screaming. She is angry because Atticus isn’t who she thought he was. Atticus says very little. She also breaks up with Hank (although I honestly still can’t see how this was so serious if they almost never saw each other).

So Scout turns to one of her other relatives: Uncle Jack Finch — a doctor. Scout is sort of his pet. He was present in Mockingbird, but not in a major way like he is here. In Watchman, he’s a secondary father figure. Uncle Jack and Scout have a very open relationship as well — they talk about everything, so she feels comfortable bringing up the fact that Atticus is racist.

The whole last section of the book is basically a lecture on race, and one that’s thinly veiled through the voice of a character. It’s not hard to see why an editor would have told Harper Lee to “show, don’t tell.” But I found this opining to be kind of interesting. It was probably my favorite part of the book, (but for a very specific reason, which I’ll get to in a second).

Uncle Jack says some things that are a little bit questionable. There are some apologist tones in there when he kind of implies that if she wants people to be accepting of all views, she needs to make room for racists too. At least, that’s how I read it, but I hear these people all the time growing up where I did — the kind who are all, “They want tolerance but they don’t want to tolerate the fact that I hate everyone who isn’t a white man!” I wish that was any degree of satire, but on election day 2008, a 17 year old boy told me he didn’t want to talk about the election because he believed all blacks should be enslaved again and that’s what he’d do if he were in charge. I continue to be absolutely horrified by this.

But there’s something buried in all of that and it’s this little kernel of something we have all experienced — especially those of us who have left home. You grow up and you’re raised a certain way, exposed to your parents’ beliefs, which are often impacted by the community around them and its specific needs and views. And that’s what you know. You don’t question your parents’ beliefs, you just go with it.

Personal Aside Time

A few days before my 10th birthday, Bill Clinton was elected President. I grumbled about this because I was told he was a Democrat, and I knew only that they were the “enemies” of Republicans. I told my friends I was a Republican, but I had no idea what any of that meant and no idea that it meant very little to me at the time. I had absorbed viewpoints from my parents and my other family members, and I was just regurgitating info (like kids do). For some people, they do this and they become those things.

I wasn’t one of those people. Everyone in my family had stayed pretty close to home, not even really leaving for college. As I got older and made friends with people who had different thoughts and ideas than my family did, I started to realize what was more in line with what seemed to jive with me. It was clear to me then that I wasn’t a Republican. I just had to learn what the alternative was first and understand it. When I went away to college, the area wasn’t vastly different than the town in which I grew up, but the campus community had a different dynamic. I made friends with all kinds of people and, coming to understand different views, could fine-tune my own. I went through a political phase. I got a job in VA and moved to a place where many seemed to have a very right-leaning point of view. I’m still friends with these people because even though their views aren’t mine, that doesn’t make them terrible people. Even if I don’t agree with them on religion and politics, I can still be friends with them (as long as they don’t behave in a hateful way [you know… racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.]). I can deal with different points of view. I can’t deal with hating people for what they are.

The heart and best part of the book…

My point there is that my experience and Scout’s were somehow not entirely different. We both moved away to live in areas in which you see and experience all different walks of life. And yeah, these areas tend to be more liberal than, say, rural Pennsylvania. The difference is that my family turned out to be more accepting and tolerant of others (more socially liberal) than they used to be, while Scout realized her dad was a racist. One of these surprises is not as welcome as the other. Her entire image of her father was shattered.

And this is the part that really gets at the heart of it for me: Uncle Jack, even though he might be talking about having to make room for racists and their ideas too, makes an excellent point to Scout when he tells her that she feels the way she does because she had her father held up on a glass pedestal and it shattered. She’d made him into a god and aligned all of her beliefs with his — she thought — and that’s the problem. Men are not gods, and you shouldn’t make them into gods.

For me, this is the heart of this book and also its best part. Because no, it’s not a particularly well-written piece. It’s not ultra-compelling. Little of it is very memorable. It’s obvious to see why Harper Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, told her to rewrite it from a different perspective.

But that point — don’t make your men into gods — is one that we’d all do well to remember. We’ve all probably felt the crush of disappointment before when we realized we may have started to believe that someone we admire and respect was capable of hurting us in a big way. And I really believe that’s how people should view Atticus Finch, too. If you don’t want to read the book, that’s fine. But if you don’t want to read it simply because Atticus is racist, well… you should know that he is just a man, albeit one in a book, and he is therefore capable of letting you down.

For better or worse, that’s life.

Living near Philly is pretty cool. A few weekends ago I attended Philly Podcast Fest’s live recording of one of my favorite bookish podcasts, Overdue, where they were discussing Go Set a Watchman. It was an interesting discussion and the hosts are entertaining. If you’re interested, you can check out that episode here on Overdue

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