Book Review: Go Set a Watchman

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books so of course I had to pre-order Go Set a Watchman … and then, despite my efforts to avoid reviews of the book, I was inundated with information from social media and television and the Internet about how Atticus was actually a racist.  Okay, I thought, maybe it’s a good thing I heard about this so I can mentally prepare for a story in which one of my favorite fictional characters is a racist.

Then, I finally received my copy and read the book.  I didn’t like the book as much as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but it was still good.  In case you somehow managed to miss it from the media, “Go Set a Watchman” was written before “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but it actually takes place afterwards.

Scout is a grown woman who becomes physically sick and feels betrayed when she finds her boyfriend and Atticus at a KKK meeting in the courthouse.  Like many people, if that’s all you hear – someone attended a KKK meeting, it’s not outrageous to assume that they’re a racist.  This is where my issue with the media-types came in.  I did NOT think that Atticus was a racist, nor did I find that his personality and moral beliefs had radically changed from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Some people hear part of a story and jump to a conclusion.  This is what Scout did in the book .. and I feel that this is what some of the media people did, too, when they declared that Atticus was a racist.  Maybe they just needed something shocking to get people’s attention.  Who knows?  I’ll address some of the possibly racist incidences in the book.

It was explained to Scout that Atticus didn’t believe in what the KKK speaker was saying, but he did believe that he had a right to say it (1st Amendment rights, fitting of a lawyer).  I feel the same way.  I may not always agree with what people say, but they do have a right to say it within reason, as long as they’re not telling people to go out to kill others or yelling fire in a crowded theatre, that sort of thing.  He also believe in keeping an eye on things so instead of having the KKK meeting at some secret location where he couldn’t hear what was going on, Atticus decided to allow the KKK meeting to take place at the courthouse.  This makes sense to me.  If the KKK speaker started saying that everyone should start going to get their guns, Atticus could step in to stop it.  Also, I find it believable that you can sometimes do more within an organization than trying to fight it.  Look at Hitler.  He came to power through legal means. He didn’t have to overthrow a government.  Now, of course, Hitler used his power for horrible purposes so let’s look at some other examples.  How about Oscar Schindler?  He was a member of the Nazi party and, at first, was only concerned about making money, but then used his power within the Nazi party to save thousands of Jewish people.  How about the countless members of the Resistance during WWII in Europe who served as spies?  If they had openly spoken against the Nazis, they would have been imprisoned, but by doing things more covertly, they were able to save lives.  Yes, of course there are people who joined the Nazis who later claimed they didn’t want to join, but based on Atticus’ past behavior (defending a black man accused of rape in Alabama in the 1960s), I’m inclined to give Atticus the benefit of the doubt.

Scout also gets upset with Atticus when he says that the South needs time to give Blacks the same rights as Whites.  I had some problems with this statement because it’s hard to say whether the need for more time is just a delaying tactic.  In the book, Atticus says that Blacks were largely uneducated/illiterate (not through their fault, of course, but because of how they had been oppressed) and he didn’t want someone who was illiterate to vote and decide who should be in office.  He wasn’t against the idea of Blacks being allowed to vote, but he thought it should wait a bit until more Blacks had been educated.  Even though I don’t necessarily agree with this statement, I don’t find it racist and here’s why.  Atticus doesn’t say that Blacks shouldn’t be allowed to vote at all.  It was the illiteracy to which he objected.  This isn’t directed against any particular race.  I don’t think that Atticus would want an illiterate white man voting either (my interpretation based on what he says about Bob Ewell in “To Kill a Mockingbird”).  Now, he could be accused of being classist.

I’m going to apologize ahead of time for this next part.  I lent the book to someone else to read and haven’t gotten it back yet, or I would look up the exact circumstances.  I’m behind with my book reviews and have read several books since reading this one and I’m trying to remember the exact scene int he book.  Scout has a moment in the book where she realizes that she really isn’t any better than Atticus.  She asks Calpurnia, their long-time housekeeper, if she cared for her and Jem.  Scout considered Calpurnia to be a part of her family.  She describes Calpurnia both being disciplinarian and a mother figure and describes her memories of Cal fondly throughout the book.  She knew, but didn’t realize that Cal had a family and worries of her own.  Her dismisiveness of Cal’s life outside of her own was symbolic of the South’s attitude towards Blacks at the time – it was great to have Blacks doing chores and other work, but beyond the services they provided, many white people in the South weren’t interested.

While I disagreed wit the media about Atticus being a racist and while I felt that “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a better book, I found “Go Set a Watchman” to be thought-provoking and insightful.  Try not to read it with a judgmental frame of mind.  Listen to the characters and then decide for yourself.

I plan on giving this book at least one more read to catch more of the nuances that I may have missed on the first reading.

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