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Books: Go Set a Watchman

I’ve written earlier about reading on a device: sure it’s great for travel (endless titles, one gadget!) but holding a book in hand, in a public place, creates the opportunity for conversation.

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanEarlier this week I was on a city bus midday, going to a doctor’s appointment. I was finishing Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the controversial early work sequel to her famous To Kill a Mockingbird.

The man across from me, a tourist from New Orleans, asked if it were good, worth reading. Yes, I said, to spend time with the grown Scout and for the time capsule of a Southern town in the mid-1950’s. Too, there are passages of great beauty. The ugly racism promoted by Scout’s father, aunt and uncle and her boyfriend is difficult to read, but made clear: these characters don’t want their way of life to change. They want racially separate schools and they want no blacks to hold office. It is cringe-worthy reading. (The older woman beside me on the bus had read the book, and said that was how it was in the South then. She added, pointing to my book, that she’d read it on a device and wished she’d bought a physical copy, for her shelves.)

Here’s the story: In her late 20’s Scout comes home to Maycomb, Alabama to visit her aging father Atticus. Brother Jem is dead, young, from the same bum heart that felled their mother. Atticus suffers from arthritis, but otherwise seems much the same man he was in Mockingbird: warm and wise. Henry, a poor boy taken in by Atticus, is now an attorney; he wants to marry Scout. Remember tomboy Scout? She’s no different here, fretting that, if she were to marry, she wouldn’t know how to wear a hat and she’d drop the babies. When Scout follows her father to a town council meeting, she is stunned — and falls ill — to learn that those she loves most are racist.

The next day Scout wakes to her new world. “On any other day she would have stood barefoot on the wet grass listening to the mockingbirds’ early service; she would have pondered over the meaninglessness of silent, austere beauty renewing itself with every sunrise and going ungazed at by half the world. She would have walked beneath yellow-ringed pines rising to a brilliant eastern sky, and her sense would have succumbed to the joy of the morning.”

Is this a great book? No. (If you haven’t read Mockingbird, it will bewilder.) It’s mostly a sweet, funny coming-of-age story, with flashbacks to school days with Jem, Dill, and young Henry. This is a book that should be read for that story, but also for its setting, at a time when intelligent, educated people actively favored segregation.

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