A good idea gone bad

(Christian Courier review, Oct.12, 2015)

IMG_0196My friend Joanie has read To Kill a Mockingbird 78 times. Yes, you read that correctly. Atticus is her hero, and she strongly identifies with Scout. She couldn’t wait to pick up her pre-ordered copy of Go Set a Watchman, pestering her bookseller to release it to her early. He wouldn’t.

Joanie has an extravagant personality. When she told me that she hated the book, I received her input with indulgent reservation. I didn’t expect to agree with her. However, the much touted “new” book by Harper Lee is indeed disappointing. Go Set a Watchman was submitted for publication in 1957, reports Tabatha Southey in the Globe and Mail (July 17, 2015), and is widely accepted to be the raw material from which To Kill a Mockingbird was born. Some sections are repeated almost word for word.

In Go Set a Watchman, Scout, now Jean Louise, has grown up. She’s home from New York to visit her aging, arthritic father and to foster her romance with Henry Clinton, assistant in Atticus’s law practice. Calpurnia has long since been replaced by the formidable Aunt Alexandra who still runs the household. Uncle Jack Finch, briefly noted in To Kill a Mockingbird, emerges as another significant character.

With sharp eyes, Jean Louise assesses the present against her idyllic childhood. She revisits Finch’s Landing, reviewing family history and reflecting on her place in it. She tries to picture herself as Henry’s wife, joining the coffee circles of Maycomb’s upper crust. She mourns her former home, now an ice cream parlour. She remembers Jem, who has died, and Dill, who is traveling the world. She finds pretty much everything in the present not to her liking.

The crux of the novel occurs when Jean Louise attends a town hall meeting, watching from the balcony. A concerned citizens’ council is discussing “the Negro issue.” Both Atticus and Henry are there. In fact, her father introduces the guest speaker whose words are a mashup of racist slurs, “separate but equal” pronouncements and twisted Christian slogans. “Color-blind” Jean Louise flees in utter disarray, betrayed by the two men she loves most. She cannot fathom their complicity. In one of the more poignant scenes, she rues her childhood naiveté: “Blind, that’s what I am. I never opened my eyes. I never thought to look into people’s hearts. I looked only in their faces.”

In 1957, in Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee hit upon a cutting-edge premise. A young woman returns to her southern home to see her community with more mature eyes, vanguard of a generation increasingly attuned to racial justice. But the book itself detracts from its promise.

The writing is not strong. Even granting the intrusive authorial voice and faintly flowery style of the time, the novel leans far too heavily on “telling” rather than “showing.” The dated prose, lacking an appealing storyline like that of To Kill a Mockingbird, quickly becomes annoying. And that’s another problem. The plot is paper thin. No action propels the story forward. The few main characters are sketched rather than carefully constructed, the exception being Uncle Jack, who injects a certain charisma.

The better parts of the book are Jean Louise’s forays into her past, familiar Scout moments that are, for the most part, comedic and amiable, although occasionally too drawn out. In this novel, Maycomb itself, inhabited by all those endearingly quirky neighbours, does not exist, except as a one-dimensional stage. A few passages hint at the organic quality of community life, but in Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise is set apart from the town, looking on without love.

And for me, that’s the blatant weakness of the novel. The tone. This is a self-righteous and mean-spirited Jean Louise. A critic who sees a truth that undoubtedly needs to be addressed, but lacks the wisdom to muster up more than recoil and reactionary aggression. Her vicious rant against Atticus renders her completely unlikable by the conclusion.

But read the novel for its 1950s sociological value, if not for its artistry. Cringe at the callousness of the commonplace n-word and at slurs we now identify as patently xenophobic. Palpate the fear of seismic cultural change. Glimpse the embryonic struggle about the role of women in society.

As I was writing this review, I read an article by Peggy Rosenthal in the September issue of Image (imagejournal.org) about a current controversy surrounding an antique menagerie carousel in Rochester, New York. The merry-go-round displays a “pickaninny” image, a stereotypical cartoon of a black child meant to ridicule and demean. Rosenthal contemplates the dilemma engendered by this illustration on a National Historical Landmark still in use by children today. How does it impact them, especially African-American children? Is it enough to merely attach a plaque explaining historical context? Is it revisionist to remove such an image? Or is it so clearly racist that, like a swastika, there is simply no question that it cannot be tolerated?

Rosenthal’s article points to the enduring duty of the watchman — to spot danger, to protect the vulnerable. In our Christian context, we are called to be on the lookout for our neighbour. Next to loving God, it’s our highest responsibility. Harper Lee’s vision in Go Set a Watchman was laudable; her literary execution less so, but the book is a sobering reminder that racism remains an enemy, without and within.





Clean-up jobs

(Christian Courier column – September 28, 2015)

Our basement flooded last October. We’d lived in our home for 27 years without a single water problem. This explains why, when the hydro went out during a violent thunderstorm, we didn’t check the sump pump. Complacency. Several inches of water soaked our basement, resulting in ruined flooring, a crawl space full of soggy Christmas decorations, and the marshy reek of groundwater.

With five fully-finished rooms in the basement, it was a big clean-up job. My husband Mark and brother-in-law Harry worked to extract the water with shop vacs. A mountain of waterlogged possessions accumulated in the driveway. Our insurance company sent over a crew who ripped out carpets and laminate flooring and installed huge fans to dry out the place. An adjustor arrived to survey the damage. Eventually we got a cheque.

The flood was a nuisance, but it wasn’t tragic. With the passing away of my brother-in-law Tim earlier in the year, it wasn’t hard to muster up perspective. Everything we lost was replaceable.

However, I found myself surprisingly reluctant to replace the stuff. It was freeing to toss out damp magazines, kids’ toys and the ridiculous amount of Christmas paraphernalia I had collected over the years. Perhaps it’s my age, or an evolving eco-responsibility, but I’m increasingly unwilling to fill up my life with things. I don’t want to be responsible for the nautical lamp that belonged to Mark’s grandfather. I don’t want to imbue with unwarranted nostalgia the needlepoint and crewel work I did in my 20s. Simplicity has its own allure.

So, though we could afford to replace everything with the insurance money, we didn’t. We refreshed undamaged paneling and bookcases and coffee tables with paint. We kept our 12-year-old sofa and loveseat since they were relatively unscathed. Of course we replaced the floors and spoiled drywall. Mark did the work himself.

We purged our books. Again, it was liberating. In fact, some resentment flared at my university profs for requiring me to buy so many obscure textbooks I never looked at again. Still, those books represented the heady days of university. Bittersweet decisions … toss or keep Origins of the Modern Japanese State and The Chinese View of Their Place in the World?

Recently we put the finishing touches on our renovated basement. I scoured every nook and cranny to remove lingering drywall dust. I washed the new tile floors (that look amazingly like hardwood) the old-fashioned way, on my hands and knees. I lovingly wiped all the books we had saved and organized them on the bookshelves. It’s always deeply satisfying for me to clean stuff and put it in its proper place. A little compulsive, you ask? Not the first time that suggestion has been made.  🙂

The whole process reminded me of one of my favourite stories. Not a story, really, but a warmly intimate portrait of Walter Wangerin’s mother from his book, Little Lamb, Who Made Thee? Wangerin writes, in lavish, exclamatory prose, about his mother’s spring cleaning rituals. Rugs were beaten. Winter clothes were washed and stored in drawers with fresh paper linings. The scent of Spic and Span percolated throughout the house.

Wangerin expresses regret for not thanking his mother when he was a child for her yearly spring cleaning. Now he understands its significance: “And spring was always that fresh start of the faith and hope in cleanliness, of the forgiveness of cleanliness, actually, since everything old and fusty could be eliminated, allowing the new to take its place – or better yet, the old itself could be the new again.”

He draws a direct line from the sacrificial cleaning of his mother to a world that seemed ordered and good and kind: “My mother assured me annually that newness has a right and a reality, that error can be forgiven, that the sinner can be reclaimed. In springtime she surrounded me with the immediate, primal light of God.” My transported heart beats “yes” to Wangerin’s exuberant insights. “Yes” to the wink of polish beneath grime, “yes” to the emancipation of soap and water, “yes” to the conversion of old to new.

It’s my turn. I bless you, Mom, for teaching me to clean. I bless you, every janitor and maid, handyman and housekeeping aide. May your gnarled hands know the consecration of your work — the holiness of your shined surfaces, the redemptive enchantment of “fixed” and “restored,” the approving smile of God as you renew the places where he is coming to live.