Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Seeing "Go Set a Watchman" for what it is

Parts of this previously appeared on AL.com.

Late in "Go Set a Watchman," Jean Louise Finch feels as though she is losing her mind.

The reader may experience the same sensation, having made a harrowing spiritual journey with the now adult narrator of "To Kill a Mockingbird." It is at this point that Dr. Finch, the brother of Jean Louise's father Atticus, levels with her and the reader. The more familiar story that we have enjoyed for the past half-century was not what we thought it was. 

"It's always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago," he says. "It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you'll get along."

It is no accident when we're first reintroduced to Jean Louise - Scout - she is trapped inside the bed in her roomette aboard the train carrying her back home to Maycomb. It's a sensation she will have again and again throughout the book - and one readers will experience through several flashbacks to Scout's childhood. It is also a sensation common to some who call the South home and those who have fled - being trapped, a stranger in two worlds, unable to navigate a safe passage.

Scout returns home and Alabama feels more real to her than her present home, New York City. As always, she - and the reader - looks forward to seeing Atticus again. "He's an incredible man" is her unqualified opinion, a man even respected by his enemies because of his quiet dignity. But he's 72, his hands are no longer sure, and though he has always seemed ancient to her, time has perhaps passed him by.

His age isn't the problem. Not long after Scout sits through a Methodist service and feels her faith slightly shaken, she is witness to Atticus' presence at a White Citizens Council meeting. The ramifications of Brown v. Board of Education have made it to Maycomb County.

It is 100 pages into the novel that we see Atticus revealed as something neither we nor Scout are prepared for.

And it comes in the courtroom, with Jean Louise sitting in the balcony. Atticus' undoing arrives in the same setting as the most vivid moment in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Instead of Atticus staring down a jury bent on a foregone conclusion, he introduces a mediocre segregationist crank and listens blandly to his racist diatribe.

This revelation of Atticus though comes amid several flashbacks into Scout's childhood and adolescence which seem to have little to do with the larger story. But these flashbacks, like our encounter with Atticus, are about misconceptions - both intentional and unintentional - and understanding.

Scout recounts an earlier crisis, arriving with her first period and the mistaken idea that she is pregnant because a boy has kissed her. She is miserable, much as she will be when she sees Atticus - and her fiancee Hank - at the council meeting. As she will be in the future, she is so miserable she wants to end her life.

Then we see the teenage Scout's entrance to the school prom, and the revelation accompanying her falsies. She feels she must come clean to the school principal when they wind up in an embarrassing place, but she is only as guilty as everyone else in the school it turns out, thanks to Hank's actions.

Both of these vignettes deal with growing up. We tend to see the same passage taking place on a smaller scale in "To Kill a Mockingbird," but the adult Scout looks back on her burgeoning womanhood and it has to do with who she is, and will be. Her moments with Atticus are about who he is, and what it means for her identity.

Guilt figures greatly when Jean Louise confronts Atticus about his activities and actions against what everyone expects is coming - the integration of Maycomb, Maycomb County, Alabama and the United States. Though a reader raised like Scout with faith in Atticus' essential goodness might not want to admit it, the old lawyer's opposition now is perversely of the same species that moved him to represent Tom Robinson: This is the fight that defines character, the fight than comes when you're know you're licked.

Scout feels guilty. She lashes out at Atticus, cursing him as a tyrant, a snob, a coward, judging him, vowing to leave Alabama and never come back. Dr. Finch, a funnier, more garrulous version of his brother, eventually leads her to an appreciation of her own prejudices and back to some understanding of her father. When the chips are down, her uncle assures her, Atticus will be on the right side because of his respect of the law. And the same goodness she has always seen in him.

The original editorial verdict on this novel was that it lacked structure, that it was "more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel." The novel lacks the polish of "To Kill a Mockingbird," and its flashbacks and extended arguments sometimes go on for too long. The modern reader may stumble over the allusions to English history and literature, or the political squabbles of the late 50s. English history smacks too much of an Anglo-Saxon past that we've glossed over in a multi-cultural 21st century, and the political sausage making that characterized the fight over civil rights in the legislative branch is something we chose to turn our back on. Instead, we choose a past of clearly defined heroes and villains, progress versus reaction, love versus hate, progress versus ignorance.

That's not to say those issues weren't at stake in the Civil Rights movement. They very much were, and still are. But the people who lived in those times - both white and black - had more than one side to them. Part of how they are viewed today has to do with which sides they choose to follow, within themselves and among others. Atticus represents the awkward social bargaining that takes place when revolution comes to one's own doorstep, not in the form of a mob storming a barricade, but the melting of social attitudes that have defined one's lifetime. It isn't just an old man afraid of losing a privilege, anymore than Jean Louise's anger is simply that of the child against the parent.

In some ways that original criticism of the novel is valid, though harsh. Frankly, it would have been impossible for this novel to have had as much resonance without the earlier story of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

However, this is a much more mature story in some ways because it is about misconceptions, and about shattered icons. When Scout asks why Atticus didn't tell him his "real" feelings about blacks when she sat on his lap as a child, her questions are much deeper: You taught me how to be this way, she is saying. How is it now that I am farther along than you are? How could you betray me like this when you made me this way? The reader might ask the same of the author. A entire generation raised on Atticus Finch suddenly sees him diminished, human, with spots on his white suit. It responds as though insulted - "What made you think I would like this?"

Atticus is smarter, though, than we expect, as wise as we might have hoped, because he expected he would eventually fall off the pedestal his daughter erected for him. Maybe this moment will allow Scout to understand her place in a changing South, which needs her now more than it ever has, just as it still needs Atticus.

Perhaps it is no accident that "Go Set a Watchman" with its compromised Atticus Finch has arrived at just the right moment, in the wake of Ferguson, Charleston and the fall of the Confederate flag. Maybe we all need to dispense with the misconceptions throughout our political spectrum that got us this far. It will be a hard fight.

We, like Scout, don't like our world changed without warning.

I wrote about the spiritual aspects of "To Kill a Mockingbird" here. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

No comments:

Post a Comment