Most of us read “How to Kill a Mockingbird” and loved it, as well as the film with Gregory Peck. The author got the Pulitzer Prize for literature and the book is a part of school curriculum in many countries. Quite rightly so, it is a wonderful book.
So of course, we all got excited hearing about “Go Set a Watchman”, reported as a sequel. In fact, this is the original book Harper Lee wrote before her publisher advised her to re-write it all from a point of Jean Louise Finch -Scout-as a child.
Harper Lee listened, it was her first book. As she said in one interview: “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.”
The excitement about the second book soon turned into disappointment with many reviewers. The publicity was very negative. Criticism of the book being published at all, suggesting that a frail old Harper Lee was being used, suggestions that even “How to Kill a Mockingbird” was probably written by her friend, Truman Capote, allegations that this second book made Atticus, the hero of the first book into a completely different, racist character. The reviews were damming.
Well, I disagree.
I wonder if the assertion about Truman Capote being the real author would happen if he was a woman and Harper Lee was a man. I doubt it. Like the fight against racism, the fight against sexist prejudices is not over yet.
I won’t put a “spoiler “ in,if you are interested, read the book.
I loved “Go Set a Watchman”. I will think about this book for a very long time.
It is a very unusual book. A bit raw, maybe not quite finished.
In my opinion, “ Go Set a Watchman “ shows very well the dilemmas in the Deep South at the time of the Civil Rights movement, the discomfort of even decent white people with the idea that colour does not matter, that we are all the same. In fact, some critics now talk about “How to Kill a Mockingbird” being a racist book, too, because it talks purely from a perspective of a white child, Scout, with the black characters not being given enough space.
But of course, as always, judging people in previous times with modern measures is tricky.
Was Abraham Lincoln a racist? He did not believe in black people getting the vote, or being allowed to marry white people. Of course, this is wrong, but he lived in 19th century, and his ideas about black people being entitled to freedom and a fair pay for their work were revolutionary enough for that time. He made it all happen, starting the slow torturous journey to where we are now. Of course, we are not completely there yet. I hope that in fifty years, our grandchildren would consider some ideas that are common now as prejudiced and racist, because they will have moved on to a fairer, more equal society.
The book made me think about the 10th amendment and the whole US Constitution, and how, like the bible or Koran, it can be used for many good and bad purposes.
I thought about the US Civil Rights movement- some things I didn’t get about it when it was happening- I was living in the communist Czechoslovakia, and did not trust the news, Angela Davis was promoted by our papers so we were not keen on her etc. You know the saying: “Your enemies’ friends are your enemies.” So I started looking it all up properly. I thought about the Affirmative action.
But it also made me think about racism generally, similarities to the situation of Roma in Eastern and Central Europe and about my parents experiences as Jews in the war.
The way some white Southerners in the USA in the sixties( including Atticus in this book) used to talk about black people being backwards, not smart enough , not ready to be equal, this happens with the Roma. And I feel that, like black people in the segregated South, the Roma in Czech and Slovak Republic do not have a chance. They need their own affirmative action.
In Jean Louise voice when she talks angrily to her father:
“You put your hand in front of them as people and say ‘Stop here, this is as far as you can go’”
Jean Louise- Scout did not like it. She was furious. I do not like it either.
Recently, I am disturbed by the anti-Islamic chatter in the UK and in Prague, and the migrants’ problem and it is all related to the problems in this unusual book. All that talk about “an alien culture”. It also made me think about the fact that sometimes you do not need tolerance and reason, sometimes you just have to follow your passion and fight. I was always suspicious of revolutions and militancy, and in a way I still am. But it is not as simple.
A book that gets my brain cells going so much is a good one.
Here are some bits from the book:
“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”
When Jean Louise, appalled by what she sees as racism in her father, whom she idolised until then ,and she wants to leave Alabama for ever, never to see him again, her uncle tells her:
“The time your friends need you is when they are wrong. They don’t need you when they are right.”
So in my vision for what happens when the book finishes, young Jean Louise will stay, and help her father move on, see the real situation, lose his prejudices. And because Atticus is a smart, good man, he will listen.
A friend in Prague told me recently that her son, hearing her talking about the danger of “the Muslim invasion” by the Syrian refugees, accused her of racism. Well, I hope my friend will listen to her son, too. We all need to listen, pay attention, and not be scared to fight our prejudices and change our opinions. And this is what “Go Set a Watchman” is about.