Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Watchman for the Community

I am late to the national discussion of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman.  My parents got it for me for my birthday last year, before they realized there was controversy around the publication.  Since they'd already gotten it, they went ahead and gave it to me.

I didn't mean to put off reading it--in fact, it sounded interesting.  But I had others in the queue.  I loaned it to a church friend who was discussing it with her book group.  And finally, a few weeks ago, I picked it up.

In ways, I liked it better than To Kill a Mockingbird.  It's not as unsophisticated as I thought it might be, and when Jean Louise, grown up Scout, offers a passionate defense of states' rights, I was impressed with the nuance.  I don't feel as betrayed by the discovery that Atticus is not as progressive on the subject of race as we might have thought. 

In fact, he reminds me of my maternal grandfather, a Lutheran minister who served in South Carolina during the contentious time depicted in this novel.  Like Atticus, he had strong notions of justice, even if he didn't live them as fully as I might have hoped.  My grandfather died when I had just turned 19, so I didn't have a chance to know him personally as an adult.

However, I did have a chance to know my grandmother.  After my grandfather died, I went to see her every month or two.  Even after I moved to Florida, I saw her regularly.  Her views on race seemed so antiquated to me--and here they are, in this book, which is like visiting her, in a way.

At some point, it would be interesting to read the book again, to be on the lookout for the more subtle elements.  There's discussion of what it means to be a Methodist, for example.  Lee is also doing a lot with gender and class.  Race, religion, class, and gender:  Lee covers all the elements of being a Southerner in the middle of the 20th century.

And yet, it's more than a historical document.  As I watch this political season, I think of all the ways that these years depicted in Go Set a Watchman have come together to create this election year.

But ultimately, this book explores community--what elements we have, what's missing, what's important.  It wrestles with the essential question:  when to stay, when to leave, how to redeem our communities. 

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