Both Sides Now: What We Learn from Go Set A Watchman

Because Harper Lee’s “other” book, To Kill A Mockingbird has been read and loved by so many people over the last half century, the release of her Go Set A Watchman has received the hype and fever of a Harry Potter book release.  In a way, that’s appropriate.  One of the themes in J. K. Rowling’s series is how a person’s perception of  people and events changes as they receive more information.  Go Set a Watchman challenges everyone who thinks they know everything about To Kill a Mockingbird.  If you don’t like surprises, shut this page down now.  There are Spoilers Dead Ahead.

Watchman is the story of young adult reevaluating her past.  Jean Louise is Southern by birth but a New Yorker now by choice.   Like others who start adult life in a new location, she finds visiting home a bit difficult.  Still, she looks forward to spending time with Atticus, the father she’s worshiped all of her life.  Then Jean Louise hears the political opinions of her adored  father and falls into shock.  Atticus sees southern black people as a group without the sophistication and education necessary to handle the privileges of citizenship responsibly.  He fears their full enfranchisement and resents the actions of the Supreme Court rather than of admit that continuing injustice made the rulings necessary.  Jean Louise’s task in Watchman is to reconcile the justice loving father she recalls with the flawed, ill man she’s seeing now.

This reenactment of the Oscar Wilde’s aphorism about children loving their parents, then judging them and occasionally forgiving them has created the biggest brouhaha since Rowling announced Albus Dumbledore was gay.  Outraged devotees and twitter trolls are either denouncing Watchman as an imitation of Miss Lee’s work or announcing their intention to boycott the new publication.  The two novels, placed side by side prompt the question: Will the real Atticus Finch please stand up?

Jean Louise’s heartache in Watchman underscores that these two men are one and the same; she and the times have changed.  The Atticus of Depression-era Mockingbird is a member of the privileged minority with the right to hold office, sit on a jury and vote.  At the time, these activities were reserved for white males. From this powerful position he tried to help a vulnerable black man, and won the esteem of his children.  By the 1950’s, the Civil Rights Movement was picking up speed.  Instead of one black man needing Mr. Finch’s help, a entire population of black people are demanding respect and the power to help themselves.  They don’t accept Atticus as an authority and neither does his daughter.  Fear of a future he cannot control has turned a lawyer-saint to a flawed, resentful man. 


Thus, the father remembered by the six-year old Scout is the same man who argues with his grown daughter, Jean Louis.  Her understanding of him expands as she incorporates this negative information.  This process is always difficult when it shows loved ones have serious flaws but it brings a fuller, subtler knowledge of the person and a test: how do we love and honor people who do and say things that we hate. To continue the relationship, we have to accept that we love imperfect people.

The fact is Watchman is as imperfect as the Atticus Finch. It has the same wry observations, the tendency to describe matters in legal terms as Mockingbird but it lacks the incisive storytelling and pitch-perfect prose.  Mockingbird’s phrases and paragraph are blocked out so anyone reading it aloud knows the exact moment to take each breath. Some of the sentences in Watchman don’t know when to stop, and at times, the plot meanders.  Comparing the books, side by side, is a rare insight into the arts of revision and editing.  Yes, Harper Lee’s editor changed the book completely by getting her to shift the focus.  However the result was a novel, adored for its transcendent beauties.

Still, it must have been difficult for the author, in the intervening years, to remember the story she sacrificed in crafting a classic.  The result was beautiful but it removed the author’s original statement about the real Atticus Finch.  For decades she endure paroxysms of praise for a man she knew to be flawed and, because the original manuscript was missing, she had to keep her mouth shut.  No wonder Miss Lee stipulated Watchman would only be published if no one asked her to rewrite it.  The story she really wanted to tell would be heard, for good or for ill.  And, as good as Mockingbird is, it reduced the story she wanted to write to a near allegory.

Perhaps Mockingbird‘s initial impact occurred because of the simplicity in its story.  In the middle of the 20th century, notions of segregation was so ingrained that people only revised their opinions when faced with an scenario that made the answer inescapable.  This kind of presentation is fine but it robs the key characters of the fallibility of real people. Tom Robinson and Atticus aren’t characters as much as martyr and saint.  The same complaint could be leveled Sidney Portier’s character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  His John Prentice had to be the perfect prospective son-in-law in order to underscore the point: no one should be included or excluded based solely on the color of their skin.

So, as beautiful as it is, To Kill a Mockingbird is a story of childlike simplicity, compared to the messier and uneven Go Set a Watchman.   That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to love the first book.  It just means, to grow up, we need to accept real people aren’t as simple as the characters in fairy tales.  We owe a debt of gratitude to the woman who has shown us both sides of her story and who was brave enough to let us glimpse the incredible work involved in creating a classic tale.  Maybe we’re finally grown up enough to appreciate her gift.

A Novel of Infinite Charm

Some stories are brave as warriors, holding their ideals high toward the sun.  “This is truth.” they say, challanging the status quo, and quiescent crowds.  I love those books.  I also love stories that are beautifully told with graceful sentences and sinuous prose.  I’m a sucker for graceful books.  I love many types of books but these days I rarely find one that captivates me with an idea.  That’s why I’m so enchanted with The Little Paris Bookshop.  It’s a novel of infinite charm.


The Little Paris Bookshop is a book-filled barge that’s steered up and down the Seine by its owner, Monsieur Perdu.  His name for the business is The Literary Apothecary and it’s a good description for the place because Monsieur Perdu prescribes books more than sells them.   He listens to his customers and finds the books that will treat their unfulfilled needs.  For example, the woman adrift in heartbreak doesn’t need Fifty Shades of Grey.  She’s still recovering  from a real relationship with a controlling, damaged man, she doesn’t need a fictional one to make her feel worse.  Instead, Monsieur prescribes a book to be read in small doses, one that creates serenity, especially if it taken in the company of a cat.  The woman recovers, a step at a time and lets go of her emotional pain.   Monsieur can find a book to help everyone except himself.

It’s a charming idea that books can be used as homeopathic cures and one I’m not prepared to throw away.  Not all books but some books have that effect on me.  When I ached with homesickness for my home-town in Kansas, O Pioneers brought me back to the prairie.  I would prescribe The Prince of Tides to those in turmoil from dysfunctional families and Out of Africa to anyone in need of perspective.  The author of The Little Paris Bookshop evidently agrees as the book contains a short list of “emergency reads” listing the complaints they treat and recognized side-effects (For example The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is effective for treating pathological optimism but leaves one with the tendency to wear a robe all day.)

No book can cure every ache as Monsieur Perdu would be the first to attest.   But can a book mend a broken heart?  Perhaps, if it’s the right book at the right time.   In the meantime, if you dream of  summer evenings and shadows or a barge trip down the Seine, go look for The Literary Apothecary and ask for Mr. Perdu.  You’ll find an absorbing trip of perception in a novel of infinite charm.

My gratitude to Blogging for Books for sending me a copy to review.

Glimpsing a Turning Point of History

Americans are fascinated by American history; what we may lack in length of time, we make up for in breadth of incident.  This last weekend commemorated events that created this country but not every turning point can recorded by an arbitrary date .  Sometimes it takes perspective to look back at a group of events and say, “Yes.  At this point we were one type of nation and by here we were another.”  E. L. Doctorow tracked one of those passages in one of his greatest novels, Ragtime.  When the times start changing, we can hear the herald through music.

Ragtime is the story of when the US began really seeing itself as a nation of many.  In the beginning are the upper-middle class Family (they have no names beyond their roles, e. g.Father, Mother, and Mother’s Brother.  By remaining anonymous, these become every family) who want and see little beyond their beckoning home in New Rochelle and Father’s interest in exploring Distant Lands.  The family occasionally interacts with the outside world but that world rarely touches them.  Houdini may make their acquaintance or Mother’s Brother may chase after the beautiful Evelyn Nesbit but nothing really disturbs the serenity or isolation of New Rochelle.
That changes when the abandoned baby of Sara and Coalhouse Walker Jr. is found in Mother’s garden.  Mother makes a decision, independent of Father, to care for this African-American child and his mother, rather than abandon them to the authorities.  Through these two, the family will meet Coalhouse Walker, Jr. a ragtime musician and black man with all the inherent dignity and authority of his white counterparts.  It is Mr. Walker’s requirement that he receive the same respect as every other man that finally brings this Family from the house in New Rochelle into the Family of Man.
Mama’s generosity also builds the bridge between her family and Tateh, the European immigrant and his daughter.  Doctorow initially introduces these as acquaintances of Brother’s obsession, Evelyn Nesbit, showing the never-ending connections in our lives.   Tateh develops from a street peddler in New York to a film director with the future of a Mack Sennett or Hal Roach.  Through these two plots wander the famous and infamous of the Ragtime Era and we see the satisfaction of J.P. Morgan and the up-and-coming Henry Ford contrasted with the radical Emma Goldman and the educator, Booker T Washington.  Each connection weaves back, one way or another to the family.  By the end of this passage, neither the world nor the Family will ever be the same.
Ragtime has been successfully adapted both as film and a stage musical.  If you get the chance to see the musical, pay attention to the opening number and how the three groups initially separate from each other.  There is the Family, clad in Summer White, singing of their world filled with parasols and then the Black performers enter kicking red skirts sky-high.  Finally the immigrants enter, bathed in blue light, and the three groups circle and ricochet around each other,  occasionally meeting but too frightened to mingle.  As the music builds, the drive of the rhythm and events dissolve their boundaries and the entire company sings of the energy that pulls society forward:
Beggar and millionaire
Everyone, everywhere
Moving to the Ragtime!
There we all are, different and alike, all moving toward our futures at the speed of Ragtime.

It’s Hard to Beat a Winner

There’s a reason to read the classics: they’ve proven their worth over time.  There’s a similar reason for reading the award winners: they’re usually pretty good books. That may sound snobbish but since this time on earth is limited, I prefer to read something that’s good.  Of course “good” is more than round characters and a well-paced plot.  To become something special, a story has to hit you where you live, make you turn over old memories and see something new in the world.  It’s not just entertainment; it’s soul-reviving.  Well, I  hunted through the Newbery finalists and boy, did I find a good book!

One Came Home is the third novel of Amy Timberlake, a writer who knows something of sisters and small towns.  It’s a mystery involving two sisters, Agatha and Georgina.  Agatha is the older one, adventuresome and pretty.  Georgie is the practical one, good with figures and strong-minded.  Agatha disappears and then the remains of a red-haired woman are found wrapped in Agatha’s best party dress, which leads to this great opening statement:

“It was the day of my sister’s first funeral and I knew it wasn’t her last – which is why I left.  That’s the long and the short of it.”

Georgie reminds me of Mattie Ross, that bold, uncompromising, heroine in True Grit.  Both girls blend stubborn minds with self-confidence; no adult can shake their sense of self.  But there’s a difference: Mattie will commit to a course and never re-think a decision while Georgie knows doubt and introspection. This is because Georgie has an older sister who has taught her more than one opinion that matters.

Agatha broadened Georgie’s vision, pointing out that not everyone wants the same goals and that life is something to be cherished, even among the wild animals.  Georgie is a sharpshooter who brings down birds for sport but it is her older sister who points out the beauty of flocking pigeons.  When everyone else believes her sister has died, Georgie resists, not because of the evidence as much as a denial of the loss.  Just as she couldn’t accept Agatha’s need for a different life, Georgie won’t accept Agatha’s death so she sets out to find her sister,  armed with a rifle, a book and a mule.  What follows has humor and terror and pain; it’s a journey that teaches Georgie about life.

It’s an adventure story, a thriller, a coming of age tale and a novel based around fact.  What ever else you can say about One Came Home, you must admit: it’s a winner.  It’s worth reading again and again.

When Survivalism met the ’50’s

Society always finds some lethal “Big Bad” to fear.  It might be a meteorite, or a pandemic, or even industrial pollution but every culture identifies some civilization-killing threat and then worries about how to survive it.  When I was little, adults were obsessed about “the bomb”.  Everything was about  A-bombs, and the H-bombs: who had them, who would get them, and how would we survive if they went off.  The Bomb was the boogeyman of our culture and creative people used it in their work.  One of the earliest post-bomb stories is also one of the nicer ones.  Until you look at it up close, it’s hard not to like Alas, Babylon.

Alas, Babylon is the story of how a small Florida community fares in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.   They’re close enough to see distant mushroom clouds, but distant enough to avoid lethal exposure to radioactivity.  Many people die, from to illness, injury or suicide.  The people who survive have to adapt to a much tougher world and, in a few cases, the disaster gives their lives new meaning.  The author implies that by stripping some things of their  artificial value (for example money reverts to worthless paper) and keeping the intrinsic worth in others (the knowledge in books) allows some obscured values to reappear.  Those are fine sentiments if you can overlook some of the other sensibilities in the narrative.
More than anything, Alas Babylon is a novel of the ’50’s (it was published in 1959) and it shows the mindset of that time.  The author identifies racism as one of the artificial systems that society never needed.  Nevertheless, his black characters remain stock figures (the wise, old, preacher, the heavy-set matriarch, the shiftless male and the good guy who is needlessly killed) who support the protagonist.  None of them are really developed into recognizable, detailed individuals. 

A pervading air of unconscious sexism also pervades the tale.  All of the female characters fill supportive roles, important ones but never roles with decision-making capability.  One female character is classified as “all woman, and that’s what she’s made for” as if a female’s function was limited solely by her gender.  It’s like 1960’s television: for all of the progressive ideas, the white guys still get the cool jobs, the best lines and the final say; no one disputes their command.  These distinctions stands out more with each passing year, reminding the reader that nuclear threats weren’t the only “Big-Bad” in that era.

Even with this, Alas Babylon has a great deal to offer; of all the survivalist tales, it has the most optimistic ending and the realized characters are enjoyable and human.  The story moves along at a reasonable pace and it shows insight along with flashes of humor.  That could be why other works(like On the Beach ) go in and out of print while Alas, Babylon is still an assigned book in schools.  It contains the moral conclusions about nuclear warfare but it suggests a lucky few will survive.  Other books in this genre would give some kids nightmares.  This one should make them think.