It’s such a relief to see the sun again today, after so much rain last week and the overcast, brisk temperatures as recently as yesterday. It’s still a bit chilly outside, but the warmth of the sun can definitely be felt already, and I’m sure it will turn out to be a lovely spring day. And while I’d love to get outside right now, I have a steaming cup of chai tea, a slice of freshly baked Date Bread, and a delicious Date Bar to entice me to stay in and write this post.
My Volunteer Book Club met yesterday to discuss Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. This novel, published in 2015, is supposedly the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird that Lee originally submitted to her publisher and that was rejected and reworked into Mockingbird. Set 20 years after Mockingbird, against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, this novel sees twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returning to her home in Maycomb, Alabama from New York for a two-week visit. She is met at the station by her sweetheart, Henry Clinton, who implores her to move back home and marry him. He points out that her father, Atticus, is getting older, and suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, and that it is her duty as a daughter to care for him at this time in his life. Her response is that Atticus will let her know when he needs her, and proceeds to make small-talk with Henry, avoiding his marriage proposal once again. Atticus’ sister, Alexandria, is taking care of the household and her brother now that Calpurnia has retired and returned to her family, and Alexandria, too, implores Jean Louise to move back home and settle down. It is clear that Jean Louise is trying to figure things out now that she has finished school in New York, and she asks Henry to take her to Finch’s Landing, where they have another discussion about marriage, and Jean Louise proposes a midnight swim. On their way back home, they are overtaken by a carload of young black men driving dangerously fast, and Henry mentions that they now have the money for cars, but fail to get licenses or insurance. The next day, their swim causes a minor scandal, and Alexandria arranges a Coffee for Jean Louise, in the hopes that it will serve to help her reconnect with old friends and show her how good life in Maycomb could be for her. Jean Louise learns that Calpurnia’s grandson struck and killed a man, and decides to visit Calpurnia to offer her support, but is met with a chilly response. When she later finds a pamphlet among her father’s papers entitled “The Black Plague”, and hears that her father and Henry will be attending the Citizen’s Council Meeting where a racist speaker will be presenting, she follows them to the meeting and is appalled to find that her father is not just a member but is actually introducing this speaker. She is horrified, and seeks advice from Atticus’ brother, eccentric Uncle Jack, who tells her that Atticus is only trying to slow down the process of racial integration in the South in order to avoid another uprising, but Jean Louise has trouble grasping this notion. The fact that her father has agreed to take Calpurnia’s grandson’s case in order to stop the NAACP from getting involved is too much for her to understand and process. It is only once she has a discussion with her father that she is able to see that, just as she had originally believed, Atticus can still serve as a “watchman”, or moral compass, for the County, and that she, too, could fill the same role. She tells Henry that she doesn't love him and will never marry him, but she is able to finally see her father not as a godlike figure, but as a man, flawed but well-intentioned. I was a bit nervous about this discussion, due to the controversial response to this novel, and the fact that my group members loved Mockingbird, but they surprised me once again by demonstrating their open-mindedness and insight. We discussed the controversy surrounding the publication of this novel, and wondered if Lee would have wanted it published at all. We discussed the ways in which our responses to both Mockingbird and Watchman might have been different if they had been published close to the same time and if Watchman had, in fact, been a sequel to Mockingbird rather than a first draft. We wondered how much editing went into this novel before it was published, as it felt, despite the rich language, description and characterization, a bit rough, and we all agreed that it would have taken on a different shape if it were polished and released as a sequel. Because I am not a huge fan of Mockingbird, I thought it might be interesting to read this novel, and I enjoyed it much more than Mockingbird for a number of reasons. The characters seemed more believable, the difference between good and evil was less defined, more subtle, and the writing had more “zing”, for lack of a better word. In Mockingbird, Scout and Atticus were too unbelievable, too saintly, and the situation was too obvious. In Watchman, there is no real “situation”, it is more of a “coming-of-age” story for Jean Louise. It reminded me of Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent in both style and message, exposing the dark underside of American society, and suggesting that corruption or “evil” is not always clearly defined, but is more often coloured in shades of gray. All in all, it was a successful meeting, and I would recommend this to anyone, even if you are a fan of Mockingbird. It is also a great choice for book clubs, especially if your group has already read Mockingbird.
That’s all for today. Get outside and enjoy the sunshine and warmer weather!Bye for now…