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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee is such a surprise. I know her first novel won many awards and accolades, but it pales to this one. We need the first one for the second one to be as powerful as it is. What is most bizarre is that we get this new novel now, not when it was written. Why? What Lee does and says in this novel is exactly what we need to hear today in our racially torn and intolerant society. We are all bigots. The language may offend or set you back, but remember when it was written and we still hear this language.  Pay attention to the law and to the politics. The Supreme Court, voters rights, education for ALL, equality are just some of the coincidental topics and we know about coincidences.
As soon as I finished God Help the Child by Toni Morrison I found Lee’s new novel. WOW!! Two gems in one week by two great writers.
Harper Lee tells all in this incredible, eye opening, wonderfully beautiful book, Go Set a Watchman, about evil. What we loved about Scout in the earlier novel was her decency, her color blindness, and her faith in her community. Her naiveté. We now see Jean Louise some twenty years later after getting educated and living in NYC for seven years. Upon her return, for her fifth annual two-week visit, she learns more about her town and its culture and vomits many times in her first week home. Fasten your seat belts; it is going to be a bumpy ride.
What has happened in Maycomb confuses, confounds and angers Jean Louise. She’s really confused about seeing Atticus in a meeting lead by a staunch segregationist. She’s even sicker to see her Hank there. When she has tea with the women she has known all of her life, she is sickened and overwhelmed by the ugliness she hears from their mouths. Of course all is built on hatred, rumor, and prejudice. Nothing is factual or accurate. It is opinion turned to fact or sound like fact and is passed on. Ignorance! No questioning just accepting. Jean Louise chooses to flee. Atticus prefers to stay and fight as long as he can and hope to pass it on to his protégé and suitor to Jean Louise, Hank Clinton.
So see runs to see Uncle Jack, Atticus’ younger brother for help and advise.  Their father fought in the Civil War. Chapter 14 is Harper Lee’s treatise on the current affairs of the South in the 1960’s as told through the character of Uncle Jack. It helps explain some. “Dr. Finch faced her and held her at arm’s length. ‘Jean Louise, I want you to listen carefully. What we’ve talked about today – I want to tell you something and see if you can hook it all together. It’s this: what was incidental to the issue in our War Between the States is incidental to the issue in the war we’re in now, and is incidental to the issue in your own private war. Now think it over and tell me what you think I mean.’” Page 201
BANG!!! This could be an important chapter today, too.
We now have a black president and the white members of Congress are beside themselves. They don’t know how to behave and as a result they behave badly, just as they were raised. Change takes more than one generation and Lee has hit the nail on the head. What Uncle Jack said in 1960 is still sadly true today. Look at the resentment to health care, to assistance, and to just plain common sense. White cops are killing young black men and women too often and with too much malice. Americans speak of their rights and yet more Americans kill more Americans than non-Americans kill Americans.
Atticus is a good man who will defend to his death the right for anyone to say what he wants, but he doesn’t have to agree with it. It is how he stays in the game of change and right. It is why he is liked by all and respected by all. It is why he is counseling Hank to run for the legislature and help the community move into the 20th Century.  Atticus is always fighting the ignorance of his own day in hopes the future will be better. He is maintaining the status quo in an impossible situation. Bravo, Atticus!!
Her first book certainly sets us up for this far superior novel as the second provides more insight into Scout as a young girl and her current romance with Hank. I was never very fond of the first novel and had to teach it too many years for my liking. Now if this novel had existed, well now we have a whole different kettle of fish. This novel is the haymaker; the knockout punch while the first one is merely the appetizer. It always left me wondering wanting more and yet it was never there. Now it is with the publication of this novel. It finally completes the cycle, the message Lee wanted to make and maybe balked or blinked when it came time to publish. Fear? Guilt? The topic of racism is tough and in her time and place it was dynamite and always broiling. I just can’t keep thinking how timely this novel is for us now.
The final and ultimate confrontation we all have with our parents and our children have with us happens with Jean Louise and Atticus. It is why our parents are proud of us and we of our children.
I will have to reread this novel a few more times, because it is so beautiful and because I put it next to Huck Finn which I consider the greatest US novel ever written. Both Huck and Scout are symbols of an American future and important because of how they learn and from whom.
Lee has written a masterpiece, far superior to her early novel. I’m sorry it took so long for us to get it.  Maybe we weren’t ready then and we probably aren’t ready now. Ignorance and racism still reign supreme in this country and perhaps even more than we think. Just look around.
Is there another one from John Kennedy Toole?  

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