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Monday, July 20, 2015

Where's Our Fiesty Scout? From Go Set A Watchman to To Kill A Mockingbird.

I keep thinking about the woman that Scout Finch grew up to be. Which, to some degree means that I am thinking, too, about the woman that Harper Nelle Lee grew up to be.

The Scout Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird is tough, loving and clear-eyed, with a thermostat set to boiling hot and fierce independence. She is being raised under the benign eyes of a Atticus, an unbelievably patient older father, and Calpurnia, the stern, kind practical housekeeper who is almost--but not quite--part of the family.

The Scout we meet in Go Set A Watchman, though being raised by the same set of parent and pseudo-parent, finds herself a little less certain. The active, fists-ready, punish-me-if-you-will, I'm-going-to-do-it anyway Scout of To Kill A Mockingbird has vanished. At eight or thereabouts, she fights for a place within the triumvirate of older brother Jem, dreamer Dill and herself, sniggering at the lateral emission whistle of a preacher during revival month, gets caught muddy, wet and plumb naked by the same preacher as Jem and Dill fight over the rules for baptism. At twelve, mistakenly fearing a tongue-kiss will make her pregnant, she suffers through nine months of terror before attempting to throw herself off the water tower to avoid her family's shame.

Two years later, with a body like "a bowling pin," she celebrates her budding womanhood at a high school dance wearing falsies that shift and rotate, a humiliating situation saved by her family friend, Henry Clinton, who also saves her from the public humiliation of having to admit that those falsies hanging from a patriotic sign, are indeed hers.

Yet, as an adult, this Scout, now called Jean Louise almost exclusively, is recognizable from To Kill A Mockingbird. She has a wry sense of the ridiculous, a knowledge of her own limitations and continues with that delightful unwillingness to tow the social party line just to fit in, even though, with brother Jem dead and Dill wandering Europe somewhere, this way of being leaves her lonely.

Like her peers, she has absorbed some sickening notions about neighbors of the other race in town--that they are ignorant, child-like, helpless, incapable, unable to find and maintain healthy relationships all except that one exception to the Finch's racial rule, beloved Calpurnia, and even she is considered a poor parent, being able only to make her son, Zeebo, at least marry all the women with whom he cavorts. The grandson, Joshua, whose car accidentally hits a town drunk, is presented at the best of the lot and college-bound, which also puts him at risk of hiring the NAACP to represent him. Jean Louise doesn't use the word "uppity," but her father might as well, and this is the world in which she was raised, in which her attitudes were steeped. Living in New York, she might wind up sitting next to a "colored" person on the bus or at a restaurant, she is hardly likely to have gotten to know any "Negroes" well, even in New York City, unless she is an artist or a writer (or an actor) and though it is hinted that she's one of the first two, we never do find out precisely what she does there.

Still, Jean Louise is initially willing to fight, even with those she most loves--her effete, scholarly uncle, her most irritating and judgmental aunt, Henry Clinton, the young man who longs to marry her and tie her down to his way of life, and even her beloved Atticus, the one person Jean Louise uses as a yardstick with which to measure all others. I say initially, because from uncle on down, all the above do their best to teach Jean Louise that you should love people even as they do things that are appalling, and that loving them means excusing their appalling behavior.

And that's where I miss the old Jean Louise, the old Scout, the one who would have come out fist first, and kept on fighting until long after she was exhausted, no matter how impossible the cause. Where did that confidence go?

The explanation might lie in other missing parts of the novel, like Jean Louise's grief over Jem's death, which is only hinted at. And of course, in the loss of her mother, which is mentioned in both novels as happening when Scout was so little she does not remember the woman at all.  The real Harper Lee's mother didn't die until the 1950's, but according to Truman Capote, never the most reliable of narrators, she suffered from severe mental illness, rarely leaving the house, and twice tried to drown Harper in the bathtub. As Capote said, "When they talk Southern Grotesque, they're not kidding!"

An impassioned young woman, a woman of charm and character, yet who does not fit the standard social mode, a woman who adored her father and may have viewed her mother like the sad and frightened Boo Radley of To Kill A Mockingbird, who then discovered that her potential future husband was a go-along-to-get-along racist while her father was a rabid one, a young woman raised to high moral standards and then betrayed by those she trusted the most, such a young woman might wind up losing her usual oomph.

And here, I'm not exactly certain if I'm talking about Jean Louise Finch in Go Set A Watchman, or the  Harper "Nelle" Lee who never wrote another book after To Kill A Mockingbird, and never found a partner to fill the hole that Henry Clinton, whoever he really was, might have filled.

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