Go Set A Watchman: It’s okay, Scout, I don’t understand men, either.

I am very up-front about my knowledge gap when it comes to American history. It’s my academic blindspot; it didn’t get much attention in elementary school, and then in university my History undergrad focused primarily on Canadian and European history.

So for me, reading books like To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman are also whole new worlds of historical context for me to explore. This book (Go Set A Watchman) is so rich with historical references, it is not only a pleasure to read, but also incredibly educational, if you take the time to research the references being made in the book.

For example, before this I didn’t know that it was in 1954 that the Supreme Court ruled that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. I didn’t know that the NAACP stands for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and that it was founded in 1909 and still stands today. I didn’t know that it was Scipio that burned Carthage to ground, and that Hannibal was one of the greatest military strategists of all time. Although I already knew Gilbert and Sullivan were hilarious, I was introduced to new G&S pieces I wasn’t familiar with before. I didn’t know that fig trees were poisonous, what a Coffee was, and that ‘Pounding the Pastor’ does not mean beating the crap out of the leader of your congregation.

You should know that few things in this world bring me greater joy than a book filled with annotations (my own annotations – I’m very particular about that, I don’t want other people’s notes). In high-school I lent my annotated copy of 1984 to someone, and he never returned it; I still mourn its loss. The act of annotation takes reading to a whole new level of engagement and interaction that you just don’t get if you let all the intricacies of the book pass you by. That is passive reading, and if you’re reading passively, why are you reading at all?

For example, Scout (ahum, sorry, Jean Louise) exclaims repeatedly that she doesn’t understand men throughout the novel. First, I hear you, sister. Men are exhaustingly complicated creatures trying to pass themselves off as just the opposite. But they’re not fooling anyone. Scout’s frustration at her inability to understand men, however, is a little bit deeper than that. Because she is a tomboy, and never quite identified as a girl, one would assume Scout would feel more at home in the company of men, and have some insights in to their psyches. One would be completely wrong. Scout’s character exists in this limbo between the prototypical mid-twentieth century woman and the prototypical man of the same century. Not quite fitting in with either group. Sound familiar, anyone? Just as easily as Scout screams out that she doesn’t understand men, she could yell the same about women.

BUT THERE’S MORE. It goes even deeper than that. When Scout says she doesn’t understand men, she means so much more. She means she doesn’t understand racism, sexism, she doesn’t understand social norms and double standards. She doesn’t understand politics and pride. She doesn’t understand expectations and the world around her. That’s some deep stuff, Scout.

I could go on. Uncle Jack is a gift to readers and history buffs everywhere. He is a treasure and we should cherish him.

My sacrosanct view of Atticus was shaken, but not completely shattered. After everything I heard and read before picking up this book I expected much more damage.

Go Set A Watchman is a definite re-read for me, and an immediate classic. I highly recommend it. If you do read it, do yourself a favour and take the time to look up those references you don’t understand. It will make all the difference.

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“To Kill A Mockingbird”

(I know – not a very clever title – moving on)

This was an interesting read for me. It was not what I was expecting at all, and I was happily surprised by this book. I ended up really enjoying it for a few reasons. The biggest reason I believe I have already mentioned: it features genuinely good characters. Characters that you don’t hate out of the gate. Which is nice.

Atticus continues to be the ‘do-no-harm’ hero lawyer/father of the South, teaching his children that all men are equal and that even though you can shoot a gun it doesn’t mean you should shoot a gun. One thing I noticed is that even though Scout is our narrator, she was not the clear main character/antagonist for me. In fact, I don’t know that I can crown either with that title – it’s either her or Atticus…maybe both.

The back sleeve of the paperback version of TKAM informed me that Harper Lee didn’t intend to write a social commentary on racism, she thought she was writing ‘a simple love story’. To emulate the great Seth Meyers: Really, Harpee Lee, really?!? You wrote a book centered around the trial of a black man being unconstitutionally and wrongfully tried and convicted of rape in the 1930s South and you think you’re writing a love story, really? The closest relationships described in the story are between brother and sister – is that your love story? Really??

If we look through the book there are few relationships that I could describe as a ‘love story’ within TKAM. You could consider Dill and Scout, who are engaged the way only a 10 year old boy and girl can be (which is to say not really engaged at all). But their romantic relationship (if you can call it that) doesn’t have the opportunity to mature into a true love story in the time covered in the book. Maybe they end up getting married and have a beautiful life together – who knows – but that is not the story Harper Lee wrote.

Then you have Boo Radley and the kids – if that’s the love story it’s not one I want to read, and not one that Harpee Lee made apparent either…although she did make a point of alleging some pretty creepy voyeur fetishism in the man.

SIDE BAR: If you want to see a real love story check out the dramatic ups and downs of Tila Tequila and Brandi in A Shot of Love with Tila Tequila. Now there is some moving stuff!

So, by comparison, I’m sure we can all agree that what we have left in TKAM is no love story. TKAM can be described in the following ways – none of which involves two people falling in love:

  • social commentary on racism
  • coming of age story
  • portrait of a small Southern town in the 1930s
  • historiographical fiction reflecting on race relations
  • the plight of the single father

You might say “You are being SO closed-minded GAWD don’t you know that ‘love’ doesn’t always have to mean romantic love?? REALLY!” And I would say: “Nice, I like how you turned the whole “Really?!?” thing around on me there, good move.” And you would go on to point out several loving relationships which are focal throughout the story line of TKAM which include (but are not limited to):

  • Atticus and his children
  • Atticus and his sister
  • Scout and Jem
  • Scout and Jem and Dill
  • Calpurnia and the Finches
  • Boo Radley and the Finch kids

To which I would say this: Denied!

“Love story” means romantic love and everyone knows it. If it is being used in any other context then it is explicitly stated. Or unless it’s being employed for the purposes of humour. Jokes are funny, so that’s cool.

LISTEN. When you finally put that book down, it doesn’t matter whether or not Harper Lee was aware of what she was writing. What matters is that the scuppernongs of Harper Lee’s labour is a great story with a lot of valuable, timeless lessons and values woven into it. TKAM was pleasant to read, and I can understand why it is included in many curricula (spell check and wikipedia just told me that the plural of “curriculum” is “curricula”…hmm, well how’s about them apples).

Jolly good show, Harper!

“Scuppernong is a kind of grape” and other such insights

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I don’t know what I expected when I started to read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I managed to completely miss this book in my formative years, despite minoring in English in university. My grade nine teacher decided we should read The Outsiders instead, and then I changed schools and they had already moved on to other books. But we can’t fault her for preferring The Outsiders – it was my first exposure to books wherein people faught and swore and it meant we got to watch Soda Pop’s shower scene in class (I’ve included it at the bottom of this post for you too, because I’m nice like that).

Back to TKAM. I think I always lumped it into the pile with the other ‘classics you should have read but didn’t’ and ignored it for eternity. This was a mistake. This book is wonderful, and another reason why I’m so happy about my decision to continue on with The List. I don’t know that I ever would have read this book otherwise.

The character of Atticus Finch is, to me, one of the most genuinely good characters I have ever come across. The more Lee develops Atticus, the more I come to believe that he is the archetypal Good Man. He is fantastic, and should come up more often as an example to be followed (disclaimer: I haven’t finished the book yet so should he do something to destroy my opinion of his character, I will be crushed and will revise the way I see him, through tears and ice cream).

I’ve read up to the beginning of the trial at this point. Here’s where I’m at: the whole entire plot has built me up to desperately want Tom to be innocent. He has to be innocent? Right? Because if he’s innocent then Atticus is good, and racism is bad. It’s clean. All of my emotions have been clearly guided to be on Tom’s side, and they are. I want to make posters that read “Free Tom” and stand in front of the court house. I want to guard the jailhouse with Atticus to protect Tom from violent mobs. I’m all riled up!

I’m aware that I haven’t mentioned Scout and Jem much in this post, and they are the main protagonists in the story. I can hear you now “How can she post about TKAM and NOT mention the children? WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN??” I’ll talk about them in my next post, okay? Promise. I have much to say on the topic of children eating mystery gum out of a tree.

In closing, I love it when an author can make you care about the characters in a book, because that’s when you can get lost in its world, and that’s what makes reading worthwhile.

Gratuitous shower scene: