Thursday, July 30, 2015

Setting the Watchman

OK. I've finished reading Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, and here's my take on it. I'll try to avoid any spoilers for those of you who haven't read it. And honestly, I didn't pay much attention to the writing. If the story is good - and I think this one mostly is - and if there's nothing appallingly horrible in the writing - which there isn't in this case, I don't read as a literary critic. So I ignored what criticism's I read beforehand.

The whole Atticus brouhaha didn't impact what I felt was the truth of the book or how I read it, because Scout is my Mockingbird hero, not her daddy. Knowing Scout/Jean Louise as a little girl made me curious about a grown-up Scout/Jean Louise, and for the most part she didn't disappoint me in Watchman. She's still feisty and bull-headed, kicking against the pricks but mostly in a good, brave way. She's not perfect, though. Some of the stuff toward the end made me cringe, because she says and thinks some disturbing stuff. I had to keep reminding myself of the time and setting. I still love her.

The big question that kept popping into my head was why didn't Lee's editors want this story told in 1960? Why did they want the 1930's backstory instead of this far more timely tale (for then and now) of a small Southern town coming to grips with the Supreme Court's decision on Brown v. The Board of Education and the rise of the Citizens Counsels? Was it too controversial? A little incendiary for the times, especially coming from an Alabama girl?

Let's face it, the brilliant editor of Mockingbird could've worked his magic on the truth of Watchman just as easily. I guess we wouldn't have wonderful Mockingbird if they'd stuck with Watchman, and that would be a loss, but still. Why the more nostalgic, distant tale instead of the happenin'-right-now one? Just wondering.

I have no idea if Nelle Harper Lee wanted Watchman published. I hope she's OK with it. In any case,  she has her brilliant, beloved Mockingbird. But I'm glad this first effort was published. I like getting to know Scout/Jean Louise as a 26-year-old who lives in New York City and isn't afraid to say what she thinks. And I mostly understand Atticus - he was a man of his time (pre-Greatest Generation) and place. Like most folks, he had heroic moments and he had his cowardly moments. Sad about Jem. Sad about the relationship with Calpurnia. But it ain't 1930-whatever anymore.

Go Set A Watchman is not To Kill A Mockingbird, but the gift of this book is not its literary genius. The gift is the story told in the late 1950s by a young Southern woman about the impact of changing attitudes on a small Southern town and on an entire country. It's a Black and White story, an Old versus New story, Childhood Beliefs versus Grown-up Reality story. And, boy, it's pretty darn relevant in 2015.

No comments: