Monday, July 27, 2015

"Go Set a Watchman": The Darker Side of Maycomb, Alabama

I often wondered what happened to all my beloved characters in Maycomb, Alabama.  Who doesn't wonder about the lives of their favorite characters of all time? Because Harper Lee once said, "I wrote one good book and that was enough" I never believed I needed to know more about Scout's life, Jem's life, what happened to Boo, Atticus, Uncle Jack, Aunt Alex, Calpurnia and the rest of the characters of Maycomb.  "To Kill A Mockingbird" with all it's amazingness would do it for me.  I didn't need a trilogy, a movie sequel, nor did I need anything wrapped up in a tidy little bow.  I liked the unresolved ending and didn't need more.  

When Harper Collins announced that they were releasing "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee, my jaw dropped.  I shook my head and emphatically told my husband, "There must be some mistake. Harper Lee didn't want to write another book" as if I knew her and could attest to her feelings on the matter.  Controversy surrounded the release of this book.  Did Lee really sign off on this deal or was it a money grab by the publishers? Was it released only because Lee's sister Alice died and her lawyer Tonja B. Carter took over her estate and just "happened upon" the manuscript that was actually written before "To Kill A Mockingbird"? If she wanted to publish this book, why did Harper Lee wait so long to do so? Did Carter take advantage of an elderly woman and resurrect an unfinished novel just to make money? 

I may never know the answers to all these questions surrounding the release of Harper Lee's second novel "Go Set a Watchman" but I decided to read it anyway even though I read early reviews that said Atticus was a racist in it.  Just the thought of that made me want to cover my ears and say "La la la, I am not listening to you" until everyone came to their senses and explained that he only appears to be racist in one part of the book, but shows his true nature as the book progresses.  I mean how could Atticus, my favorite literary hero of all time change so drastically as a 70 year old man? Surely he must have the same moral code and conduct that he had as a 50 year old champion of equal rights? 

The novel tells the story of Scout's (who now goes by Jean Louise) return to Maycomb 20 years after the close of "To Kill A Mockingbird." She's a 26 year old liberal New Yorker who still loves her hometown even if some of the people there are narrow minded.  She's in love with her father's right hand man, Hank, who is one of her oldest and dearest friends, and she still sees her father as the most amazing human being in the world.  The Maycomb in this novel is similar and different from the 1930s depression era Maycomb, but darker in a way because it is no longer told from the perspective of an idealistic, intelligent child whose father is infallible in his life lessons.  In the 1950s civil unrest, Maycomb fights a different battle than the ghosts that lurk in dark, mysterious houses, it fights the ever present NAACP and traveling racists who spout hate against a potential black uprising or the (gasp) mixing of the races.  In this Maycomb, even Atticus wants the races kept separate.  He, unlike Scout, is not colorblind. 

In many ways Jean Louise still retains the tomboyishness and the idealism of her days as Scout.  She doesn't shy away from confrontation with Aunt Alex (Alex is even more blustery in this novel), nor does she escape the expected traditions of having to do a Coffee session with the local ladies who can't seem to understand why on earth anyone would ever want to live in New York City with all the "Negroes" everywhere.  

Amid the rambling chapters in this novel, the real story is Jean Louise's separation from Atticus.  She becomes her own person by seeing Atticus as a flawed human being after witnessing him at a town council meeting about the preservation of the white way of life.  Uncle Jack takes on a bigger role in this novel and in almost preacher like fashion, he dominates the end of the book telling Scout "you confused your father with God.  You never saw him as a man with a man's heart, and a man's failings . . . You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers." 

There are big flaws in the writing.  Yes, this is Harper Lee, so there are more than a few moments of brilliance, but the narration lacks the vibrancy of "To Kill A Mockingbird" because it is told in 3rd person (and sometimes trails into an awkward 1st person).  The dialogue in some chapters is more like sermons and speeches, and there seems to be unfinished holes all over the place.  

I couldn't love this novel like I love "To Kill A Mockingbird" but it's still a noteworthy novel.  The chapters that flashback to Scout's early dates with Hank were my favorite (especially the part about her falsies), and The Coffee conversations were entertaining as well.  This novel, to me, still felt unfinished.  It contains the seeds of the more innocent "To Kill A Mockingbird" and because this was written first, this might be the draft that Lee never really wanted anyone to read or see - the dark side of all the characters, or maybe what the characters were like before she shaped them into what they became.  To me, this is an unfinished sculpture which has it's own merits, but can't really be compared to what "To Kill A Mockingbird" is.

Regardless of the shortcomings, I'm glad I read it.  I'm glad I got to see a different side of Maycomb, a different side of the South in the 1950s.  It shed light on other issues for me that I need to research and I will most likely read this book again when I am ready to venture back into Maycomb.  I just have a feeling I will reread "To Kill a Mockingbird" first. 

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