Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Go Set A Watchman

I've been on the waiting list at our library for some time for this book, mostly out of curiosity. My number finally came up (or, the library finally got enough copies to meet the demand).

Maybe it's because the book is set in a time and place I know so well -- where I grew up, in effect -- but I was almost instantly transported into the book and story, far from the initial curiosity that led me to read it. I could so easily identify with the colloquialisms and descriptions of things that indeed existed at that time, were very true to the time and place. We weren't separated by all that many miles: the story is set in a small town in south Alabama and my own small town is in north Georgia. I had an aunt and uncle who lived not all that far from where Harper Lee lived in her small Alabama town. We're practically kissin' cousins.

So, I was wrapped up in the story and the people from the first page. I loved the references to earlier days in Scout's life (the times and people of To Kill A Mockingbird), and I loved seeing Scout's story fleshed out with more details, plus the added connections of so many of the same people being in both books. Beautifully written, as would be expected. Plenty of depth in characters and story, also to be expected. A book to be savored and contemplated, rich in language, writing skill and characters.

Granted, the story is not a pretty one, but it is a real and authentic one. I was there, so I can see the authenticity, even though Scout was maybe 12-13 years older than I would have been at the time. The book was written in and about the mid-fifties, which gives it a solid grounding in the realities of the time as only a writer who experienced it could do. Many people write about this era after-the-fact, but their words and opinions are based on history, rather than experience. Not that experience makes it any prettier, but it does make it authentic.

I had an experience similar to Scout's a few years back when I learned that my beloved grandfather, a man I knew to be as kind and gentle and good as a person could be, a man I idolized and loved above all others throughout my life, once marched with the Klan. I learned this from a cousin whose mother, my father's older sister, recognized her father's shoes underneath his white sheet as he marched through town with a large group. I guess the shoes were pretty distinctive, but she wasn't in any doubt who it was. So I can understand Scout's sense of loss at learning her own, idolized, father's views on the subject. Fortunately, by the time I learned it I was an old woman and my grandfather long dead. Scout was young, her father very much alive. I wasn't devastated as she was, merely surprised. People are human, even our idols, and don't always live up to our lofty expectations and sensibilities.

There's plenty of deep insight and philosophy scattered throughout the book; things that will (or should) make you think. They certainly made me think. That's particularly true towards the end, when the story reaches its turning point. Reading much of this enraged me once again, as the southern attitude towards black people has enraged me throughout my life. I had the good fortune to be born as color blind as Scout, and words such as backward infuriate me when used in this context. I would substitute other words, such as uneducated, for starters. Yet, pretty or not, it's true to the time and place. And no, I'm not going to get started on my own soapbox. Scout said it all for me.

A couple of quotes from the last few pages really caught my attention and made me think. One was ...it's always easy to look back and see what we were,  yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. Another, Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.

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