I chose to start the year with these two because I was lucky enough to get tickets to see the Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird in January. Like most (okay, maybe all) American students, I had read Mockingbird in my eighth grade English class and truly did enjoy it. When Go Set a Watchman came out a few years ago, I was hesitant like so many others because I had heard so many conflicting opinions of it. But in an era where race is a constant (and necessary) topic to engage, and because I was going to see the play, I thought it was time to read them both together. I am so glad I read Watchman first and To Kill a Mockingbird second. It allowed me to get the painful part over with and then move on to the more enjoyable stuff! Watchman is clunky and I really disliked the third person narration (which is weird, because I usually prefer it). I think I just enjoyed Scout’s voice so much in Mockingbird that the later book did not live up to my expectations at all.
But going back to this small town in Alabama as an adult did remind me that discussions about race become so much more complicated as you get older. As a child reading Mockingbird, Atticus was just doing the right thing by defending Tom. But as an adult, it did seem like Atticus was conflicted about what his true motivations were, which Watchman does shed some light on. As I have gotten older and explored more about race in this country, everything seems to become so much more complicated. This book reminded me that I am not the only one who feels this way.
I was also so interested in the women in both of these books, which was so great given my goal for this year’s reading theme! As a white woman, it was fascinating to read about the power that women do and do not have in this small Alabama town. Mayella Ewell has zero power in her home life, and yet her race gives her so much power over Tom’s life. But is that even her power, or is it white men using her to wield their own? Meanwhile, Scout rejects the town’s norms regarding femininity during childhood, eventually rejects the town altogether. Her desire to leave town clearly has roots in her rejection of the blatant racism she encounters there, but I also see how it can be her desire to escape for the more traditional gender roles expected of her. I enjoyed the reminder that women have been fighting to be themselves for a long time, and have gained a lot of momentum since the 1960’s. Obviously, there is still a long way to go, and I’m looking forward to exploring that in future posts.