Like many others in North America, I set aside some time last week to read Go Set A Watchman, the latest book released by Harper Lee, as soon as it appeared on my Kindle. If you’ve been following my posts, you’ll know that I was late to the game and only read To Kill A Mockingbird few months ago so I was keen to stay on top of things and see what this new manuscript would deliver.
As a writer, I was fascinated to see the evolution from Go Set A Watchman (written in the early 50s) to To Kill A Mockingbird and how masterfully Lee wrote even in the first novel. There are passages that are stunningly beautiful and I still felt as if I was on the porch of the Finch family home watching all of the events unfold.
Her sense of place and accuracy in capturing the tiniest of details are extraordinary. As we are told that this was her first draft of her first book that preceded To Kill A Mockingbird, I find myself in awe of Harper’s talent and I can only wonder what she could have accomplished had she kept writing more books. Every award and honor she has earned was well deserved.
Go Set A Watchman is a quick read and, I think, an important one both for the historic value of this authors contributions to literature, but also because, unfortunately, her subject matter remains as urgent today as it was when she was writing her novels.
As a reader, honestly, many of the words were painful to see committed to the page. In the second half of the book, I found myself holding my breath and hoping the language would ease up. It did not. Some of the words she used were absolutely hateful and hideous and I’m certain she chose those words with the precision of a surgeon. Lee is too talented not to have selected each and every word carefully and their impact pierces to the core, as they should.
If I think of this in the context of the era in which she was writing, I would say that she was bold and even well-intended. The character of Scout – whom we follow again in Go Set A Watchman – has grown into an articulate and thoughtful woman who is appalled by the treatment of blacks in the South.
There are scenes that show her shock and dismay vividly and even when explanations are given by other characters as to their behavior, there is some deep meaning behind it that somehow works in the book and it all comes together as we come of age with Scout. It was hard to read but I was deeply moved was, ultimately, won over by the masterful writing.
What disturbed me most, however, was not actually Lee’s visceral depiction of the era leading up to the civil rights movement, but by the reminder of how little things have changed in 2015; the reminder of how much more we need to do to right the wrongs of humanity. Her elaborate descriptions were apt for the era that coincided with the civil rights movement but they still hold true today.
The KKK is still active and filled with hate. The Confederate Flag remains a topic that needs to be discussed. Black churches are still being burned down. White men still feel moved to savagely murder their black neighbors. The list goes on and on and on. Those venomous hateful words are still being used today and they are still regularly spewed at people I know and love.
In the context of Go Set A Watchman, I believe that Lee used them with an intent to highlight the problems she saw and for her character, Scout, to speak out on her behalf at the injustices occurring in the world. Would Scout, in the end, succumb to the pressures of her upbringing and give in? Or would she move back to Alabama to take up the fight on behalf of social justice? We don’t know and as a reader, I’m fine with that. That is the beauty of literature, that it leaves a lot to our imagination to fill in the plot in ways that work for us.
In reality, however, I fear that there are many “Scout’s” and others who have left their past behind and speak out only when convenient that “things should change,” but then they don’t do a thing about it and, worse, they don’t live by those convictions. They don’t stand up publicly in support of racial justice and in their avoidance of doing so, they remain complicit in the white supremacy and racism that continues today.
Decades have passed since Lee first penned Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird, but time, it seems, has moved at a snail’s pace and, indeed, may even be slipping backward. Read Go Set A Watchman. Reread (or read) To Kill A Mockingbird. Consider these issues as they pertained to the past and as they apply to your life today. Check in with yourself and see where you stand, then do something about it. #blacklivesmatter