Go Set a Watchman: Why I’m Reading It

I’ve preordered Go Set a Watchman and hope to read it tomorrow.  (It should hit my Kindle well before I wake up tomorrow and, since I am nightside, I see no reason why I can’t finish it before work.)

I’ve been nervous about it since it was announced.  The publisher said that it wouldn’t be edited, and it’s not a secret that Harper Lee didn’t want it published, or that her sister was her protector and died three months before this book was “found” and this was even before the first chapter and NYT review that revealed that Atticus is maybe not the hero we remember.

I even considered canceling my preorder.

And then I realized that even if Atticus is the worst character ever written in this book, it doesn’t tarnish Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird.  They are two totally different books, and if I can’t differentiate between them, then honestly I should stop reading and blogging altogether.

More than that, though, I woke up this morning with an actual conviction: I need to read this book.

I’ve mentioned recently that I’ve been disillusioned with some of my friends after the Supreme Court said that gay marriage bans were unconstitutional and some of them were angry and sad.  And not surprisingly, I’ve taken that very personally.  (As naturally one would, when someone once thought to be a friend says very publicly that they don’t think I should be able to get married.)

So why am I bringing this up?

Because Go Set a Watchman was written and is set in the 1950s.  It’s not a recent book, not a book that looks back at the civil rights era and desegregation with the knowledge we have today.  We know now that racism is wrong—at least most of us do—but back in the 1950s, you would’ve found a lot of otherwise wonderful people that would have disagreed with that, who would have said that the races should be kept separate.  If you disagree, think of those pictures of the first African-American children to go to formerly white-only schools.  They walked in together, bravely, seemingly unaware of the people screaming at them.  Now we look at those pictures and feel ashamed of those people and their fear, ignorance and hate.  At the time, though, they thought they were doing what was right.  But racism is always wrong; discrimination is always wrong.

And obviously those who opposed integration were wrong, and I’m hoping—perhaps naively—that many of them were ashamed of their earlier beliefs.  But is it okay to judge them harshly just on that one thing, to reduce an entire life to one mistake?  I would argue no.  As the great lady said, when you know better, you do better.  We don’t always know better.  And it’s not fair to judge a book written in the 1950s on 2015-era sensibilities.

I know that the people who oppose gay marriage are also doing what they think is right.  And I have to believe that, in a few years, they’ll realize how wrong they actually are.

People look at these sweeping changes and worry that the sky will fall.  But the sky never does.

We all do the best we can with the information we have.  Atticus bought into a racist culture.  Some of my friends bought into an antigay culture.  We don’t always have the ability to recognize wrongdoing when it is a part of our everyday lives.

I do think it’s possible that, even if Atticus Finch was opposed to desegregating schools and buildings in the 1950s, he would’ve grown to see the error of his ways.  And I do understand that you can believe wrong things and grow to regret those beliefs.

I’m just hoping that the compassion I hope to feel for Atticus will help me feel like I can have beyond superficial relationships with people who don’t think I should be able to get married.  Or, to paraphrase a quote from my favorite Snow Patrol song, I’m hoping the grace I feel for Atticus will help me find it for the people in my life now.

It’s a big responsibility for a book, I know.  But if anyone can do it, I’m pretty sure it’ll be Harper Lee.


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