Thursday, July 16, 2015

You Can't Go Home

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical.

Here we are, right back in the heart of the Deep South, looking at this world through Scout, or rather Jean Louise's, earnest and searching eyes. And after a fifty year wait, we too look out with a delight almost physical.  Whether or not you think the book matches the force and sheer cultural presence of To Kill a Mockingbird (it doesn't nor could it) in no way erodes the exquisite taste of historical perspective that Go Set a Watchman delivers. 

Not simply a story about family, specifically the idolization that daughters can have for their fathers (oh, the heroic Atticus) and the effect that has on their own developing consciences, but it is also a razor-sharp study of place (Maycomb, Alabama), of a time (mid-20th century), of race (white and black), of class (love who you will but marry your own kind) and of politics (Jeffersonian Democrats, the NAACP, the Klan and birth of citizen's councils in response to desegregation, the tension between our federal government and states' rights - there's a lot).  The language Lee employs to talk about race and race relations is raw and jarring without being obtuse: it is spoken of in the language and cadence of the times. Taken out of context, some passages are disturbing, and expose the ingrained racism and prejudices of Maycomb's citizenry, circa 1950s.  God forbid that the ignoramus take them - separated from the book - to use as fuel for bigotry and hatred. 

Coming to grips with her personal history may come across as unexamined and naive from Jean Louise's point of view, but not from Atticus.  For Atticus represents a bygone era of the South and, in Go Set a Watchman, we get a fuller view of our idolized hero. The man we always viewed as a man of dignity, of such gentle restraint, of such righteous conviction of right and wrong - the ultimate man of the law and constitution -  is revealed to be just like the rest of us, unfailingly human (and two decades after Mockingbird, aging with fragile health), but even more devastating to his legion of fans,  he is exposed as a racist and former member of the Ku Klux Klan (even if his involvement was to see "who was under the hoods"). His failings and Scout's struggle to accept them and all they represent gives us intimate insight into the human condition.  We can only take care of our own conscience, no one else can do that for us: not faith, not family, not the government. Thus, Scout's struggle with this  uncomfortable - actually unbearable - truth becomes our struggle too. It's enough to make us sick to our stomachs. 

Alas, you can't go home again. For better or for worse: we bring to our lives our own misguided and distorted fantasies and fallacies. But, with the perspective that space and time afford, we can also get a clearer look at what has been right in front of us the whole time.  And it ain't always pretty.  In time, we all have grow up, even our precocious Scout.  

For more insights, see NPR's 'Go Set a Watchman a Revelation on Race, not a Disappointment'  and the New York Times book review.