Dads, eh? You think you know ‘em and then one day you grow up and measure them against the complex realities of the world and find them wanting. Before Atticus Finch became everyone’s ideal dad his daughter seems to have written a novel about that painful realisation which comes to each of us the day we realise our dad is not a hero, just a man like other men.
I have yet to read Go Set a Watchman beyond its early release first chapter but it seems to have upset some reviewers. They have complained about the lumpy narrative, the meandering pace and the rusty-from-disuse language of a different age.
And each, in their own way, has mourned the chipping at the monument to Ideal Dadhood that was Atticus Finch.
Daniel d’Addario in his review for Time is explicit:
“Atticus, more than any other character, has stood for justice and righteousness in the American imagination. And now he’s revealed as a bigot? Perhaps especially as anxieties rise over the apparent absence of justice in racially charged cases, it seems somehow too much. We need heroes in our fiction, at least.”
Perhaps. But I’m a reader who has always found more interest in the clay feet on which they stand. If our heroes can be human, it follows that we too can be heroes.
The thing I’m looking forward to most of all about Go Set a Watchman is sharing Lee’s voyage of discovery around her father. She couldn’t have known when she rewrote parts of it to create To Kill a Mockingbird that her little first novel would have the impact that it did.
If we can stop projecting ourselves into our own imaginary Maycomb childhoods for a moment it may help to understand why she set Watchman aside for so long. The Atticus Finch we will meet in this book will be the same man we, and she, loved so well.
It would be a brave person to go lightly shattering a childish illusion that’s so universally shared. And for what? Unresolved daddy issues?
We all have them but what will make Harper Lee’s account so interesting is the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. Thanks to the simplicity of Mockingbird, Harper Lee is in a perfect spot to discuss the complexities of racism. I suspect discovering the troubling out of date views of an older relative is just the start.
Lee was writing at a violent time in America’s troubled race relations. Her book arrives at another violent time in that country, which may account for some of the unease around Watchman.
But it’s not just in the United States that Mockingbird made its mark. The sordid experience of racism is universal and entrenched in ways that are sometimes hard to see when you’re perched on one of the privileged branches of the human family tree, wherever you hail from.
The power of Mockingbird was to show us through a child’s eyes the glaring injustice of racism that’s hiding in plain sight. The power of Watchman may turn out to be an adult realisation that there’s more to ending racism than saying “I’m not a racist.”
Taking the good from your childhood heroes and learning to leave the rest, that’s what growing up’s about. We all want to be like Atticus Finch and have the courage to stand up against injustice. Failing that, we want him to turn up and face off the haters for us. Instead we find him standing with them on those clay feet, planted firmly in the traditions and beliefs he himself was raised in.
It’s a mark of progress that we can find his views outdated.
But after a look at his clay feet let’s take a look at our own – the institutions and lazy habits that perpetuate racism in our society on a long and ugly continuum from casual bigotry to violence and death.
If Scout Finch can grow up and deal with the devastating realisation that racism exists in the very fabric of her upbringing then so can we. Are we grown up enough to take that journey?
Can we be heroes?
Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ gives Atticus Finch a dark side – Michiko Kakutani, New York Times review 10 July 2015
Atticus Finch’s racism makes Scout, and us, grow up – Daniel D’Addario, Time review 11 July 2015
Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ reveals a darker side of Maycomb – David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times review 11 July 2015
The ‘rise’ of the Aboriginal woman: From domesticated cow to cash cow – Chelsea Bond, New Matilda
White people may deny it but racism is back in Britain – Yasmin Alibhai Brown, The Independent
Want more Baxter? You can read more Books I Haven’t Read here
© Sally Baxter 2015
This post was also published at the Australian Independent Media Network