“For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees.”
I believe, I was in sixth grade when I was first introduced to To Kill a Mockingbird and it easily became my favorite book going forward. We read the book in literature, no doubt, and I’m not sure if it was in school or because of my father’s love of classic films that I saw the film that same year. I felt that story in my bones and like all the other readers, fell hard for Mr. Finch as the ideal man. It was Scout, though, that I related to so deeply. In reality, I didn’t have too much in common with her aside form the fact that we were tomboys with loving yet, almost mystical fathers. However, from a young age, I had a deep calling for all things civil rights oriented and was drawn by the honest yet hopeful depictions of Maycomb in the book. While I did live in Virginia, I never set foot in the real South nor had I been introduced to any real racial conflict yet. It was just a part of me. My first heroes didn’t have super powers (Although I was a little obsessed with Rogue from the X Men), instead they were Abraham Lincoln and Rosa Parks and I once wept openly as I walked through the Civil Rights Exhibition at the Smithsonian. (Don’t even get me started about my first visit to the Holocaust Museum.)
By the time I read it a second time, I had experienced my first peek at racism and then moved to the crazily segregated Saint Louis. It was a whole new book to me and I had a new appreciation for Atticus Finch and his resolve to do the right thing. I don’t think I need to explain the pedestal that we all put this fictional character on but it just got even higher when this jaded young adult read the same book in high school. I remember the teacher, whom I had a huge crush on, asked if anyone had seen it and I eagerly rose my hand. I blushed hard when I realized I was the only one who had not only raised her hand, but did it so enthusiastically that said teacher made a comment about how I’d only watched it because “Gregory Peck is oh so dreamy.” I can’t remember my exact reply, but I’d like to think I said something wise about the historical significance of the story and not simply defend myself by correcting him that it was actually Robert Duvall’s Boo that made me so swoony.
I loved that book. It was ingrained into my heart and when people brought it up, I talked about Atticus Finch as if he was a true American Hero, a man to name my kids after, and a father that every other father should strive to imitate. Needless to say, I admired Harper Lee as I was a wannabe author and a lover of literature. I learned everything I could about her life and would often choose her as ‘the person I’d most like to dine with’ since I knew she was a long time recluse and had alluded to an unmentionable sequel that would never be published.
Then, years later, the literary world shook and it was announced that we’d finally get a glimpse into Maycomb in a newly discovered manuscript.
I’m not going to delve into all the details of the discovery but this Vox article does a pretty good job describing the controversy if you were unaware. However, as a ‘fangirl’, I worried about what it meant reading a book that this woman, a huge influence in my literary life, may have never wanted to come to light. I was dying to get into this world again but struggling with the moral implications as if I were trying to watch a bootlegged DVD. More than that though, I knew, by the synopsis, that the story would shake my core belief system. I knew that no matter what was in Go Set a Watchman, I wouldn’t be able to look at these characters the same because the mystery of their futures would be laid out and the pedestal on which Mr Atticus, MY Atticus, stood would be stunted if not shattered. I wasn’t ready for that. So, instead, I did what I always do when faced with the end of any thing I love; whether it be the last season of my favorite show, the last album of a favorite artist or the inevitable ending of a really great friendship…I simply avoid it for three years until the reality of needing the closure is heavier than my resolve. So, two weeks ago, thanks to the amazing Libby app from the library (Thanks Holly!), I embarked on my journey with Ms. Harper Lee, Jean Louise and my dear Atticus Finch.
From here forward, I cannot promise you that there will not be spoilers but I will try. Honestly, the main thing that I have taken away from reading this book is that I want everyone to read it. Especially if you were ever moved by the first book because there are so many things to take away from this story. And let me tell you some of them…
The first thing I realized was that I am still a Scout, through and through. From the first few sentences, I was transported back into a world that I too had left several years ago and like Jean Louise, I found myself struggling along with her to relate to the people in this story after spending so much time in a more diverse and fast-paced world. I’m not sure if it’s simply a comment on me and my connection to this character, Ms Lee’s incredible writing, or Reese Witherspoon’s sweet twangy reading but I found myself engrossed in the emotional journey with a twenty-six year old Scout. I swooned when she swooned, I laughed when she laughed and when her world crashed down around her and she was broken, I sobbed with her. No really, like ugly cried. A lot.
That heartache brings me to the next big takeaway from the book…even our heroes are human. For decades, we have idolized this tall, handsome and mysteriously moral man. He was the the quintessential example of fighting the status quo to do the right thing and schools have taught this book with the sense that the story is a fantastic example of the turn of the civil rights movement. Except it’s not really. We’re talking the deep South where people are STILL arguing for their right to have a Confederate flag fly next to an American flag. To believe that one trial, one lawyer, can undo a century’s worth of hurt and mistrust…is insane. Sure we can see the David and Goliath symbolism but this oak of a man…was just that, a man. He made mistakes, misjudged and did other human things. When Jean Louise’s ideological view of her father is shattered by reality. You FEEL it with her because, we too, idolize Atticus Finch. Our hearts are broken when we discover the darker side of Maycomb and Atticus (and Hank for that matter). But they break mainly because we can’t keep our hero on a pedestal if they are just a mere mortal with flaws.
When I was a teenager, my sister lived in Chicago and went to Concordia River Forest. I spent a week or so up there in my her dorm, living the college life and felt so free and grown up. I could write a whole book on the experience and how much that time changed me, but that’s for another time. While I was there, my Grandma came to visit my aunt who lived a hour or so away and they came down to visit for the day while my sister was busy. We had grown very close to the pair since we moved to Saint Louis which was the same year, we lost my beloved Grandpa which led to my Grandma moving several hours closer. I loved them dearly and a day with them, with any Stroup’s really, had you belly laughing and catching up on all the juicy gossip (which was usually not very juicy at all) for hours. They picked me up and we went house hunting. Not for us but for Frank Lloyd Wright houses. My brother’s love of architecture had rubbed off on me and thanks to his passion and a leftover subscription to Architectural Digest, I fell in love with FLW. So, armed with his book and a street map (remember those?), we set out to find some houses to look at.
Now, my grandma had never once made me question her morals. This is the woman I describe easily as the woman who I’d most like to be like when I grow up. She ended every birthday card with “Jesus loves you and so do I”, she helped those in need when she had little to give, loved ferociously and was essential to helping form my relationship with The Lord. But that day, as this task took us to questionable parts of Chicago, I heard my dearest Grandmother, use a myriad of racial slurs! She never once uttered the N-word but every bad street we turned onto opened me up to a term that I had never heard before and the reality hit me hard. My Grandma, who taught me to love like Jesus, was the most racist person I knew. To be fair, the closest thing to racism I had been actually faced with at the time, was once in sixth grade when I liked a black boy and his cousins told me to “stick to my own race” and my best friend who liked to say things like “Will Smith is hot…for a black guy.” Insert eye roll there. So, the things Grandma said were in earnest, pretty mild and to the tune of joking about grape soda or fried chicken and not anywhere near the things I would hear later on in life. These were more like the inappropriate jokes your black friend could tell you and would have you rolling but when you heard a white friend tell them you’d tense up and feel uncomfortable. I was shocked to the core and thought, now I’ll have to stop loving her so much. But my Dad explained how she grew up in a small rural town and had never even met a person of color until her honeymoon, ironically in Saint Louis, before she returned to that tiny rural town. She never stood a chance.
That’s when, like Jean Louise, I learned that the bad in people doesn’t automatically undo the good they’ve done. I read rumors that some schools were talking about possibly removing To Kill a Mockingbird. They thought that the sudden disillusionment and new found knowledge of Atticus’s true motivations, negated the positive, uplifting message of the first book. If Atticus Finch was this flawed and backwards man to begin with, how could we glorify his actions to young minds. But, as Scout comes to realize, no matter what happened or why, the effect of her Dad’s actions and words, were still such a positive influence in making her a strongly convicted woman. Her memories, while slightly tainted, could remain in a blissfull ignorance that allowed her to remember the good parts of her Dad. Just like the realization that my Grams was kinda old school racist, does’t change the fact that she still was an amazing, loving, giving woman who was a huge support in my path to faith. Her blemished vocabulary did not define all the amazing bits about her. Harper Lee does a fantastic job exploring this concept in such a beautifully heartbreaking way.
Which brings me to my next realization: We needed this book NOW. Look, we are living in a world where our country is splitting in half. You are daily asked to choose sides and when you do choose a side, you are asked to forsake all aspects of your life that don’t coincide. If you share an opinion on one matter, people automatically know what political party you are, who you voted for and every single other opinion you may have and they judge you with venomous hatred. We can’t disagree anymore without name calling and facebook blocking. When this book was announced, it was shortly after a revolution of sorts had begun here in Saint Louis. People had begun to fight the status quo and others began to clam up and hold tight to the fear of losing themselves and their beliefs. We learned more about our acquaintances than we ever wished to know and every year we get more pigeonholed into picking a destructive opinion. We need to remember! We need a reminder! If we can’t sit down and really look at where our fellow Americans are coming from, we will systematically destroy this country. There was much speculation that this book was being put out without real consent. However, I think now, more than ever, Ms. Lee knew exactly what she was doing. She knew that we needed to be disillusioned and reminded that we have good in us all (well most of us) and that we need to simply remember who we are and listen to each other.
But, the most important thing that I took away from this book is that we can and need to teach our children how to be true to themselves and ultimately be better than us. The climatic scene in the book is gut wrenchingly heartbreaking and you feel every bit of emotion, hence all the ugly crying. However, the most beautiful thing about it, which Atticus points out, is that Jean Louise is so secure in her beliefs that her convictions do not waver even a little. Even when it risks her relationship with the person she loves the most, she stands up and says ‘THIS is not okay.” And doe Atticus, stuck in his own convictions, yell at her, call her a libtard snowflake and tell her that she’s not lived enough to protest injustices? NO! He is PROUD of her for knowing what she believes, why she feels that way and supports her. Atticus never once made his children his minions and he sure never belittled them for practicing what in their hearts, they believe. So please, next time you see a bunch of kids standing up for their believes, dont belittle them. Instead, LISTEN to them and feel proud that they have found a voice and stick through it with them. History is filled with old people telling the young folk to shut up and appreciate what they have because it could be worse like it was “back in our day” until they are finally just jaded enough to give up. Every generation it is the same struggle. So let’s break this habit because in reality, if they want to change the future for themselves and their children…it’s not OUR future so what right do we have to hold them back? Also, if they are so dumb that they can’t possibly have a legitimate opinion…that’s a hundred percent OUR fault…we just weren’t Atticus Finch-y enough.
So, go. Read this book and remember.
“The only thing I’m afraid of about this country is that its government will someday become so monstrous that the smallest person in it will be trampled underfoot, and then it wouldn’t be worth living in. The only thing in America that is still unique in this tired world is that a man can go as far as his brains will take him or he can go to hell if he wants to, but it won’t be that way much longer.”