First things first: If you have not read Go Set A Watchman, there will be some spoilers in this. Like, for real, dude. So if you do not want to be spoiled or do not want my opinion on this matter, please enjoy this awkward Malfoy/Lord Voldemort Hug.
I have no idea if I did that right.
Go Set A Watchman, as you likely know, was written by Harper Lee, who also wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. From this point on I am going to abbreviate those titles as GSAW and TKAM because I am lazy. If you haven’t read TKAM, stop what you are doing, quit your job, abandon your family, and get it and read it right now. I will wait.
All done? Good job, you.
TKAM is by far my favorite book ever. I have read it approximately 430832 times. Every time I read it I notice something new about it that I didn’t notice before. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
I also think I have somewhat of a unique view on both of these books as someone born and raised in the South. I am certainly not the only one who holds my views and people who are not from ’round these parts, as we say down here, are certainly able to take away the same impressions and ideas that I do. But I do think being a lifelong Southerner offers me a specific kind of opinion on these books and the ideas surrounding them.
So, since TKAM is my favorite book, and since I hail from Georgia, I looked forward to GSAW and the ideas that it would bring to mind.
Honestly…I was a little disappointed. For several reasons, which I think will be easier to break up into sections. I know. I’m so fun and exciting you can’t keep up.
The Character Development:
I have a degree in Journalism and I minored in English. I’m not saying this as a #humblebrag, but merely as a way to inform you that I have had to write so many different kind of stories and articles that my hand fell off once. True story. I learned a lot about writing and characters from people far smarter than I, and one thing that was ingrained in me was consistency. You have to be consistent. I used to laugh at the idea that authors were not fully in control of the characters they write. But it’s true. If you are truly hoping to create someone out of nothing, you have to be both realistic and willing to concede when some traits or circumstances just aren’t working. If a character is to represent a real person that we might meet on the street or in space or wherever, you have to comply with certain universal truths that are present in all people.
Unless you are writing about aliens. If you are writing about aliens, do whatever you want because that sounds awesome.
An author might not always like certain traits of the character they have made. But, unless you are willing to change entire elements of the story and create a whole new person, you are stuck once the character is established. People in real life certainly change, and characters in a story can likewise grow and change, but it needs to stay within the confines of organic, subtle changes, in my humble opinion.
The abrupt character change of Atticus Finch in the time that lapses between TKAM and GSAW is both unsettling and unbelievable, at least to this reader. In TKAM, we are presented with someone who is wise, and, while not perfect, strives to tell his children and his community the truth. He has integrity and a consistent manner that lasts for the nearly four years that the book spans. Admittedly, TKAM is told from the story of a young, albeit precocious, daughter who idolizes her father, so it makes sense that there would be some difference once the daughter grows up, as she does in GSAW. However, the author of the book makes a point to use mature and developed themes to give us an idea of what Atticus Finch is like, and it seems consistent with what his daughter sees.
If this were an essay for school, I would have to give you references from the book about his character. But this isn’t an essay for school. I am a free agent. But if you must know, I would refer you to the other adult character’s opinions of Atticus, as stated by the sheriff, Judge Taylor, Miss Maudie, etc etc. I will not give you page numbers. You are not Mrs. Feldman.
In GSAW, we are presented with a somewhat awkward compilation of the Atticus we knew from TKAM and someone whose ideals have made a complete about-face. It is wholly possible that I am missing some subtle clues or developments that will make themselves known upon a second reading, but for now, it seems as though Atticus has suddenly and ridiculously been slapped with additional character traits that serve the sole purpose of adding conflict to the story. He spouts off some very racist ideals, and, what’s worse, says them with the confidence and logic of someone who really believes them. Far from the defender of equal rights and justice for all, Atticus is now willing to call African-American people limited, unable to run a society, and unworthy of the privileges given to white people. And we are shown this new Atticus in a jolting, flamboyant way; unlike its predecessor, GSAW does not rely on subtle clues to develop its character, but rather paragraphs of text that smack you in the face with their traits and ideals over and and over again.
There is definitely some familiarity in Atticus – his overall demeanor has not changed. And to hear him explain himself, he is only trying to work within the society around him in order to effect change. Essentially, he must investigate and embrace some of the racist beliefs held by his fellow community members if he wants to bring an end to racism. And while I can see his point to an extent, it seems as though he has dabbled in these beliefs for so long that he might buy into them himself.
As I am writing this, I’m wondering it that was perhaps one of the points of the story: That no one is perfect, as our protagonist finds out, and that sometimes, in order to help someone realize their own beliefs, you must make them defend those beliefs and really consider why they cling to them. Atticus goes to great lengths to show his daughter that she needs to become her own person, not just someone who agrees with him, and this could perhaps be the way he goes about it. He says as much in the story. However, it seems out of character for this to be the way he makes his point. He is taking a risky gamble on his daughter’s ability to see past his apparent racism and her ability to realize that he was trying to teach a much deeper lesson. He assumes she will figure it out, and she does, but only after many lengthy discussions with other community members that take the scenic route to getting to the point. Had she never understood what he was trying to do, we would be left with a broken father-daughter relationship that cannot be resolved. And I am not convinced she understood what he was trying to do, or that that was his plan all along.
The Atticus in TKAM is not violent by any means, but he would be willing to stand up to these rules in order to fight them rather than pretend to join in so he can fight from the inside. So we are left wondering if Atticus truly believes the things he says, or if it was just to make a point to his daughter – and then we have to decide which of those is worse.
Racism in the South
I actually really liked the way this theme was explored in GSAW. Scout, once again our protagonist, is faced with the realization that she is “color-blind” – that is, she was raised not to be racist, but as a result did not truly realize the racism of her community.
Being raised in the South, I can relate to this. My parents taught us that everyone is created equal, God loves us all, and no one should ever be denied rights based on the color of their skin. And I am grateful for that. However, the older I get, the more I realize how naive I am about many racial issues. The South is known for making a lot of racial distinctions, and thanks to my parents, I was spared those ideals. But, in what might be the most ironic circumstance ever, I never considered that not every person was raised like me, and that racism is a prevalent part of many households, even now.
Scout is suddenly faced with the fact that the ideal world she lives in isn’t real – it served her for a time, when she was a child, but she is an adult now, and she has to understand the truth. This is where I think the book was trying to go with Atticus’ strange character development – each person has to decide what they believe and be ready to defend it, and, more importantly, know why they believe it. If I only believe everyone is equal because my mom and dad told me so, I have missed the mark by quite a bit.
Though I do not know many people who are outwardly racist, in the South we are still very much separated in many ways. Not legally, but by our own distinction. I grew up in a church that, until the last few years, was almost completely white. Not because people of other races weren’t welcome; but because the community we live in has separated itself. There are white churches and black churches and Hispanic churches and lots of kinds of churches. I don’t think these churches are full of racists or that this is even a terrible thing, but it is just a way of life here in the South. I don’t think I would be kicked out of a church because I was the only white person in attendance. But I would be naive to think that I would not be noticed as the only white person in attendance. Am I making sense? This concept is a nebulous one and I am struggling to put it into words. Text me if I offended you.
But I do not care for the way that this theme is thrown at us in the book. One of the best elements of TKAM was that its subtlety required the reader to come to their own conclusion, and there wasn’t just one right answer. In GSAW the right answer is very apparent and is screaming to be noticed. So uncool.
A large part of this book is about states’ rights. Again, my status as a good ol’ Southern gal gives me an interesting perspective on this. The idea of states’ rights has been ingrained in me since the day I was born. I’m pretty sure the first words I ever heard were, “Happy birthday, favorite daughter!” followed closely by, “states’ rights states’ rights states’ rights.” And I agree that is an important concept, and one that merits a lot of study.
To me, the rights of the states in the USA are very important. Much like Scout in GSAW, I don’t love the idea of the federal government issuing edicts for the whole country. But GSAW does raise an interesting point, or tries to, anyway: How do you balance states’ rights against equality for everyone?
GSAW specifically references the Brown vs. BOE Supreme Court decision, in which it was decided that all students, regardless of race, were allowed to attend any public school they wanted, and that is was unlawful to continue to separate students based on their race.
There is no part of that I don’t agree with. Every child should be able to get the education they need and not have to worry that, because they are not white, they will be cheated and left uneducated.
However, the part of me that is a staunch supporter of states’ rights does not love being commanded to follow certain rules as set forth by the federal government. So a conflict arises. In this case, I am glad that the decision was made to allow all students in all schools. But it does set a precedent, one that we have seen followed as recently as this summer.
How do we find the balance between the rights of the states versus the rights of the individual? I don’t have an answer to that one, but I suspect there really isn’t one.
This is what I think GSAW was trying to touch on. But it crammed it in between themes of racism and coming of age and seeing your heroes for who they truly are. These issues are all important ones that require a lot of thought and discussion, but I think it is asking too much for one fiction book to cover them all in 280-something pages. ‘
I think that was the most disappointing part – there could have been some really deep thoughts on any one of the subjects GSAW touches on. But in its effort to cover all the bases and recapture some of the spark from TKAM, we are left with just surface observations of several subjects that, in the end, doesn’t amount to much. There was a missed opportunity to show the rest of the world more about the South, because I think the South and Southerners are often misunderstood. Not in the YOU’RE NOT MY MOM YOU DON’T KNOW ME kind of way; more in the, “See? We’re not just a bunch of racists” kind of way. I’m being flippant about it but those stereotypes are ones I have had to work against my whole life. I am not going to compare it to being a victim of racism, because there is zero comparison in that regard. I just think this book had the chance to show Southerners for more parts of who they are, and it didn’t really jump on that chance as much as I would have liked.
And maybe this is a little too conspiracy-y, but I don’t think Harper Lee wrote both of these. Or if she did, GSAW was heavily edited. I saw nothing familiar in GSAW; not in writing style, humor, even the way the characters spoke. It was all too different. So I think aliens wrote this one and somewhere out there is an alien who is writing an essay on her alien blog about how humans viewed her story. Nice try, alien, but we are on to you. We are ON TO YOU.
What was I saying? Right. Books. Read this for yourself. Decide what you think. I am going to read it again and see if I am missing something. I definitely missed a few big things when I read TKAM for the first time, and I am absolutely willing to concede that I am running low on caffeine and brain power and maybe I skipped a page.
If you read it already, did you like it? What did you think?