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In which I review Go Set a Watchman and stand on my conscience


posted by Susan Dominikovich on , , , ,

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There has been a lot of criticism of Harper Lee's newly discovered and published Go Set a Watchman. It seems people either love it or hate it. I have skirted around the headlines and reviews not wanting my own reading to be shadowed by the opinion of another. From the start I was convinced the book was a worthwhile publication strictly from a literary and historical viewpoint. It is the parent of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most-loved novels every written. I was fascinated by the story and wanted to see the birth-pains and the stretch marks which so sacrificially produced one of my favourite babies.

I had no idea that in reading it, I would be so profoundly affected.

This book is important.

It is important because the issues exposed by Jean Louise during the Civil Rights Movement in small town southern USA are still issues that we grapple with today: bigotry, fear, racism, marginalisation, segregation. It breaks my heart that we have learnt so little in the sixty years that Harper Lee's novel has been gathering dust hidden in a vault somewhere in a lawyer's office. 

Jean Louse Finch returns home to Maycomb from New York and is dismayed to learn that her father Atticus and childhood friend Henry are members of the Citizens' Council, a group of men determined to figure out what to do with the NAACP and the supposed problems arising from desegregation of blacks and whites. They present a fear-based rationale for their motives as Atticus eventually explains to Scout: "Honey, you don't seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you've seen it all your life. They've made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they're far from it yet" (246-247). 

Jean Louise is completely derailed by this discovery. Her vision of her father and best friend is altered forever but even more compelling is that so is her vision of humanity. She struggles with the fact that sitting on this council are "men of substance and character, responsible men, good men. Men of all varieties and reputations...(110). Maycomb is changed forever in Scout's eyes, just as it is for all of Harper Lee's readers and fans. Together we discover the ugliness and the fear and the judgement that sits in the heart. 

And that is the point. Because while it satisfies us no end to forever think of Atticus Finch as the perfect father figure, purveyor of justice, and the watchman of all our consciences, he is after all human. We learn along with Jean Louise that Atticus is "a man with a man's heart, and a man's failings" (265). And in learning this, Jean Louise finally comes "into this world" (263). She sees the world as it is with all its ugliness, fear and judgement. She grows up.

But the difference between Jean Louise and those on the Citizens' Council in Maycomb is that she is colour-blind: "You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like. You've never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you're still unable to think racially. You see only people." 

60 years on and racial tension is still an issue in the USA, as the people of Ferguson Missouri and South Carolina are fully aware. Reaction to these events as well as a string of others has been strong and swift in the online world. But fear-based violence and segregation extends into so much of society beyond race and colour. Women's rights, abuse of children, murder and executions in the name of religion...all in the headlines at the moment. And recently, the US Supreme court legalised gay marriages nationwide, causing a furore of debate on-line. 

A furore of debate on-line. Really? Why in the name of humanity should it be an issue?

It has saddened me--derailed me in fact--to see Christians up in arms against this decision. So much vitriol and hate and fear has been universally rationalised with the words: "the Bible says clearly..." by the same people who withdrew their sponsorship of World Vision children in 2014 when the organisation announced it would hire Christians in same-sex marriages. The children were used as pawns and it worked. The organisation reversed it's policy. Where was the love in that? My heart broke and my eyes opened. In that and in other things happening at that time, I came into this world. I grew up. 

My response to them and to anyone who uses the Bible, their religion or belief to rationalise poor behaviour can be summed up by these words of Scout:

Why doesn't their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I'm not. I'm something else and I don't know what. Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me--these same, these very people. So it's me, it's not them. Something has happened to me. (167)

I thought I was a Christian but I'm not. I'm something else and I don't know what.

But I know I'm not alone. There are others like Jean Louise Finch who do not see colour, race, religion, gender or sexuality. We see only human. We see only people. And I know there are many voices out there that are calling for an end to the hate, the fear, the ugliness. There are watchmen and women set in place, standing on their conscience. 

There are watchmen and women who write and speak and call humanity to account, just as Harper Lee did, sixty years ago. 

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