Book Club: Go Set a Watchman

There was quite a bit of controversy surrounding this week’s Book Club book but I wanted to add my two cents in. From rumors of elder abuse, the fall of the mighty Atticus, and just the general timing of the release, the circumstances of the publishing of this book has been dodgy to say the least. I know almost everyone who grew up in the US has at the very least heard of this book if they weren’t required to read it in school. To Catch a Mockingbird was my favorite book I read in high school so it was with eager anticipation that I picked up this sequel/prequel. I hope you all enjoy my honest review.

Go Set a Watchman
By Harper Lee

I hate to confirm everyone’s suspicions about a beloved character in fiction but it’s true: Atticus Finch is racist. 
This was perhaps as shocking to me as it was to Jean Louise “Scout” Finch - this man, this larger-than-life character, this diamond in a racist rough of his time, is a racist. Don’t believe what you’re reading on this blog? Here are a few excerpts (direct quotes by Atticus):

  • …You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward’ don’t you?
  • …If the scales were tipped over, what would you have? The county won’t keep a full board of registrars, because if the Negro vote edged out the white you’d have Negroes in every county office—
  • …do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?
Do you hear that? That is the collective sigh of disappointment by Atticus Finch fans the world over. And I would add that disappointment is an understatement.

Before I even talk about what we as readers should even make of this, let’s talk a bit about the the story itself. It’s been two decades since Atticus defended a black man in court who was accused of raping a white woman. Scout has since moved away from Maycomb, Alabama and is visiting her family and hometown from New York. Jean Louise, for the first time, is seeing her town for how it really is. While she was raised to be rather color-blind (especially compared to the rest of the residents of Maycomb), the people that she grew up with and even looked up to are very aware of race and color. Upon seeing Atticus introduce a racist man going on a tirade against integration (the time period of the novel is just after the Brown v. Board of Education case) and the NAACP, she is aghast at the fall of her hero and her world comes crumbling down. Throughout the rest of the book, Jean Louise struggles with her realization that the man she idolized growing up and many of the coming-of-age themes that we all know and love. 

Some of the other themes of this book are interestingly very relevant to some of the political topics that headline the news today. Atticus admits that he is a Jeffersonian Democrat and he is firmly against big government (sound familiar, US readers?) He represented black people in court simply because he didn’t want the NAACP and the government to get involved in Maycomb and force the county to add black jury members in court cases - he didn’t believe the South was ready. While he believed black people were people, he didn’t think they were the same as white people. His views are appalling, sexist, racist, homophobic, and (quite frankly and quite unfortunately) consistent with the views of others of his time and place.

This book came at an interesting time for me because I was going through a similar but completely opposite, situation with my parents. I always knew that I had differing social-political opinions from my parents so I tried to avoid topics regarding social issues because I had it set in my mind that nothing I say will convince them to see things my way and vice-versa. It was a pleasant surprise when I actually did sit down and had a conversation with my parents about a certain issue and they were both more than reasonable about my opinion - though we still disagreed in the end, there was no tension and we both came out of the conversation with a renewed sense of understanding. I couldn’t believe that my parents were so much more reasonable than I ever gave them credit for. It was literally the exact opposite situation that Jean Louise went through when she found her father lacking when she considered him the epitome of morality. It goes to show that the people in our life we consider sacred or larger-than-life are, in fact, human too with real human flaws and sometimes, real human dignity and understanding. It took the crumbling of her hero for Jean Louise to realize her father was simply just a man and I think it’s a lesson that we should all take with us - our heroes are people too. Let’s not glorify them and put them up on a pedestal.  

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