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 Calpurnia has long since been replaced by the formidable Aunt Alexandra who still runs the household.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.

 

 

 

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