I wanted to write about this while it was still fresh on my mind. Last night I stayed up until nearly 3am reading "Go Set A Watchman", Harper Lee's previously unpublished "To Kill A Mockingbird" sequel (not a sequel). (Watchman was written first, scrapped, and turned into Mockingbird until 2015 when a manuscript was found and published.)
Like probably most people, I read Mockingbird back in high school, and like most books from English classes, I really enjoyed the book itself, if not the writing of chapter summaries and answering study questions. Plus having to _stop_ reading at the end of various chapters when things were getting good. (Although maybe if I had to stop at the end of a chapter I'd have gotten some sleep last night). When Watchman came out a few years ago I wasn't really interested. I didn't recall much of Mockingbird which didn't bode well for being able to understand the sequel, and the circumstances of its publishing seemed more like a way to cash in on being a mysterious sequel to something a lot of people were familiar with more than had Harper Lee only just now written it.
But good lord, she may have well written it today with how relatable Jean Louise (Scout, as she's nicknamed as a child in Mockingbird) is despite taking place in the mid 1950s . The story opens with her returning to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama from New York City where she had been living for the past several years for a brief visit. Her father, Atticus, is older and has health is beginning to fade. Her aunt now lives with him to help him out and a lot of the early portion of the book deals with Jean Louise feeling she should be the one to watch over her father, but that living in Maycomb would make her incredibly miserable.
The first 100 pages are dedicated to her revisiting people in town, and discovering both how much is the same and how much has changed. It feels like the earlier days of Night In The Woods, except Scout is coming back to a town where her only friends are her father and uncle. There's also Henry, her on-again off-again boyfriend who constantly tries to convince her to stay in Maycomb and marry him. She spends the early chapters falling in love with him again though still unsure if she could ever be happy alone in that town.
Then the racism happens! A lot of people were upset when the book was released that Lee had made Atticus a racist. Meanwhile in Mockingbird he was young Jean Louise's hero, a champion lawyer who fought for justice regardless of the client's skin color. In Watchman, this is still true. Atticus still did defend an innocent black man who was charged with rape to save a white woman's reputation, (and in Watchman he managed to win the case unlike in Mockingbird). Instead Jean Louise is outright mortified to discover a Maycomb Citizen's Council formed as backlash to black demands for their rights as equals (here summarized as the NAACP putting ideas in their heads). She is told that Atticus is on the group's board as well as Henry, and goes to the courthouse to spy on one of their meetings from the balcony and find out what's going on.
And what's going on is that Atticus _is_ on the board and so is Henry. She struggles to find some explanation or justification to what she's seeing. Atticus introduces a guest speaker that goes on to speak to the audience (filled with many men from town she knows and cares about) about the dangers of being overrun with black "mongrels", jews being their allies, and the usual racist spiel you'd expect from somebody with a Pepe the frog avatar in a video game. This is what makes it so powerful because despite being set some 60 years in the past, discovering the abhorrent views of friends, family, game developers, and funny internet people has become a staple of the past few years. It hurts discovering somebody whose company you enjoy or content you like watching drop racial slurs, espouse a gender binary, or deliberately misgender a trans individual. Scout's reaction is the same reaction you have to some gross dehumanizing tweet a friend put on your timeline: utter betrayal.
That overwhelming rush of feelings as you wonder if these views or new, or had always been there without you noticing somehow. The realization that all trust in this person has just instantly evaporated with a single comment and been replaced with a sickening bile in your stomach. It hits you hard to find yourself unable to look this person in the eye, speak with them, play games with them, commission art from them, and so on.
Jean Louise gets it even worse by having to have these realizations alone in the 1950s in a town filled with these people where she has no outlet to turn to. She is alone and trapped in a town filled with people who do not see humanity in an entire race. She flees the courtroom and vomits. The only one she may be able to turn to is her uncle, Dr. Finch. The man she idolized her whole life has just been revealed to be a racist hypocrite and the same for her would be husband as well.
Her conversation with her uncle is where things in the book suffer a little. Her uncle takes on the role of the defender of the milkshake duck. He explains to her that their council isn't violent or founded on white supremacy, it's made of local citizens, the good people she's known for years. They aren't upset that black people want to be treated fairly. They're upset that the way this is happening is too fast and through the courts and not congress. This will sound disgustingly familiar to any member of an oppressed group, that they're in fact going about things the wrong way, it will polarize people against them, and that if they'd just quiet down there'd be no fuss. Things suffer here because Jean Louise is partially swayed by this. She agrees that this isn't a matter for the courts which stings to hear (especially with the 60 years of hindsight from Brown v. Board of Education). Still though, she puts forth the idea that what matters is that these people are people and should be treated as people. Her uncle talks about the KKK and how it's important to let them speak so they can make fools of themselves. He talks about the civil war being about the loss of identity for the south as freeing the slaves meant skin color was the only thing left to make a poor white man feel that he's better than an equally poor black man. Not everything is about race you know! Atticus is a man who believes in law and order and that's why he's on the council. He's not actually a racist, just wants to make sure he knows the enemy in case they do turn out to be bad.
Her uncle is another person we've all inevitably seen react to Twitter "drama". The kind of person who will defend whatever outburst as being a joke, or screaming free speech whenever somebody suffers consequences for what they say. He's the enabler who ignore any misgivings because the person involved has been so nice to him. Her uncle is the person who doesn't want to pick a side, and by not doing so has chosen the side of the oppressor. He is not a part of the citizen's council, but he benefits from it.
So now Jean Louise is really out of people to talk to. She begins to run home intending to pack her things and leave the town early and for good. Alas, she runs into councilman Henry, another person who her feelings for have been replaced with pure disgust, and she lets him have it. Henry, at first unaware of what's the matter, happily mentions that he noticed her at the council meeting and even waved to her. It is no dark secret for him. There is no shame. Jean Louise goes on to tell him why she will never love him or trust him again, and Henry tries to explain his reasons for being on the council. He too is not one of those awful racists! He joined the council and became a boardmember not because he agrees with their message, but because it will benefit his reputation in town, something he desperately needs as he's from a "trash" family of Maycomb.
There is a really good discussion on privilege here in a way that applies to the 1950s far more than 2017: the privilege of family. In Maycomb, everybody knows everyone and families have their place on the town's social ladder. He claims he has to be on the council and he can't publicly defend black folk like she can. Jean Louise is a Finch, a well respected family and she personally is known for her eccentricities. Henry however, if he said the same things she did wouldn't be eccentric, but showing his trash roots. I say it's really good in the sense that it's a sort of privilege that feels like it doesn't really exist anymore (at least not that I've personally observed), but Henry is revealed to be our next YouTube account to unsubscribe from: the power seeker.
He's the person who makes his mistake, but can't own up to it. He has to double down on it and embrace the supporters who see his slip-up as affirmation that he's one of them, and by having to appease that base in turn becomes one of them. At one point Henry openly admits that he sometimes has to vote on that council in direct opposition to his personal beliefs, and that after the first few times it's easy.
There's still one last meltdown to have. Jean Louise has yet to confront her father, and immediately after ending his discussion with Henry, he's there. Like her uncle, Atticus explains his racism away as being an issue of abuse of the courts. He tries to calm Jean Louise down by approaching the issue like a court case, and gets her input on how she first felt about the supreme court's recent decision. Again her relatability suffers here as she suddenly becomes a fervent supporter of state's rights. Atticus goes on to say that they're actually in agreement, and reading the passage it suddenly sounds like they really are. Jean Louise suddenly is very worried about the supreme court deciding things for the states and gets pretty cringey for a bit.
Thankfully this changes when she tells him to stop seeing her anger as one of politics and to start seeing it as one about people being mistreated. She goes on calling him a lot of things (like Hitler!) and how she doesn't give two shits if her future kids are in a school that's half-black or more because they are people. Her anger comes from getting all her beliefs about such things from Atticus and realizing that it was all politics for him. He cares about justice in the courts but is incapable of seeing injustices on the streets. Atticus takes all of this, hardly responding, and really just encouraging her passionate outbursts some more until she's finished and can run home and pack.
And, aside from the veering into being worried about the precedent of courts, these chapters fly by. You root for her and cheer on every nearly remark she makes. She is right in assessing the people she grew up with as backwards people incapable of seeing the suffering around them that they themselves cause. It all works very well until the very end here.
While packing at home her uncle arrives once more to talk to her now that she's calmed down. To Dr. Finch and Atticus this moment was a long time coming. Not the discovery of their pervasive racist attitudes, but of Jean Louise and Atticus finally disagreeing on something. To them this was all her just becoming her own person and not just a copy of Atticus. Dr. Finch says that now she finally realizes that Atticus isn't perfect and that any moral questions she has are hers to answer rather than running to Atticus and doing what he would. She begins to realize that society is an airplane and too many people in the nose or tail would cause it to crash, and that it's important to have a balance, blah blah the answer is somewhere in the middle.
God the last two pages of the book fuck up something so good.
She loves her racist family after all, and the book ends with no action being taken by Jean Louise. Suddenly she is a milquetoast democrat who knows that racism is bad, has no really intent on doing anything about it, and that the racists in her life are still ultimately good people?