Why Young Readers Should Know Both Atticus Finches

Like many people, I first read To Kill Mockingbird in a high school English class. At the beginning of each period, we’d gather our desks into a circle, the legs of our chairs groaning against the classroom floor. We’d tuck our pencils into the spiral rings of our notebooks and stare blankly at each other until our teacher asked the question that finally provoked some semblance of discussion from us. Questions like:

Atticus always reminds Scout and Jem to try walking in other people’s shoes before judging them. In what ways do Atticus, Scout, and Jem have to walk in others’ shoes—to show compassion and empathy—throughout the book?

What does Atticus mean when he tells Scout that “most people are [nice]…when you finally see them”? How is Atticus able to see the good in all people despite everything that he endures?

Isn’t Atticus Finch just about the most magnificent, respectable, justice-seeking white savior in all of American literature?

No one ever actually asked this last question, but its sentiment ran throughout most of our conversations. Atticus Finch was a hero. Someone whom we could, and should, aspire to emulate. Someone who stood up against racism and injustice. Someone whom we placed on our highest moral pedestal.

I adored Atticus Finch so much that I almost named one of my children after him.

Nonetheless, I was initially skeptical about reading Harper Lee’s latest book, Go Set a Watchman. The murky story behind the manuscript’s discovery and publication—musings about Lee’s declining health, her ability to give consent, her long vow not to publish another novel—just didn’t sit right with me. And when Watchman’s early reviews revealed that Atticus Finch, the much-lauded anti-racist hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, is a bigoted, Klan meeting-attending segregationist in Watchman, I was all but ready to disavow the book.

Upon more careful consideration, however, I wondered if there weren’t something morally compelling about this new literary development. Maybe, I thought, there was some deep philosophical value in these new facets of Finch’s character: facets that highlight his imperfections and complicate his commitment to justice. Facets that would make great classroom discussion fodder for a new generation of readers. And so I ordered a copy of the book and prepared to deepen my understanding of the great Atticus Finch. I even decided to read Watchman alongside Mockingbird, alternating between chapters from each book so that I could measure the distance between the Atticus of Mockingbird and the Atticus of Watchman.

This act of side-by-side reading didn’t merely add new depth to Atticus’s character. It distorted the Atticus that I once knew. The Atticus I once knew—the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird—dismisses the Ku Klux Klan. He treats Calpurnia, the Finch family’s black maid and caretaker, with kindness. He wages a masterful courtroom defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, despite ridicule and threats of violence from his community.

The Atticus I once knew was not a racist.

Nonetheless, before I finished either book, I began to realize that the Atticus I once knew probably didn’t ever exist. Like many readers, I once viewed Atticus through the naïve, nostalgic eyes of Mockingbird’s narrator and Atticus’s daughter, Scout. Scout adores Atticus. She reveres him. She uses his lessons about justice and fairness to provide the foundation for her entire moral framework.

By Watchman, however, Scout is no longer a little girl. In fact, she is no longer “Scout”: she is Jean Louise, her given name, her adult self. And like Jean Louise, I shuddered to learn that Atticus is etched with deep, reprehensible grooves of imperfection. For in Watchman, he owns a pamphlet entitled “The Black Plague.” He attends a segregationist meeting and makes excuses for why it’s important for him to keep an eye on what the group is planning. He bemoans the NAACP and anyone who would claim that black people are equal to white people anywhere outside of a courtroom.

The Atticus of Watchman is indeed imperfect. He is human, he is flawed, and some of his flaws reek of the prison of his own time and place. One might wonder if, in fact, Atticus could have thought or believed otherwise, given that he, the child of slave owners, is a white man in the mid-century South.

Whatever the case, these flaws are present—subtle, though still present—in Mockingbird.

For even in Mockingbird, Atticus refers to the Klan as “a political organization more than anything”—one that, at least in Maycomb, “couldn’t find anybody to scare.” This is not a dismissal based on principles of justice and equality or on a deep-seated concern for black people. It’s more like disdain for the group’s inefficacy.

Moreover, he goes to enormous lengths to defend the truly heinous deeds of other white men in Maycomb. He refers to Mr. Cunningham—a former client who had joined an angry mob with the obvious intent to harm Atticus, and likely Tom Robinson, too—as “basically a good man” who has “blind spots along with the rest of us.” He never praises Tom Robinson’s general goodness. He appreciates Calpurnia, and he demands that his children respect her, but this appreciation and respect is based on her work as an employee of the family: not on her inherent goodness or humanity. And although he treats some black people with kindness—Calpurnia included—he never treats them as equals. His kindness is more an infantilizing kindness, which he confirms in Watchman when he refers to black people as being “still in their childhood as a people.”

Even Atticus’s courtroom defense of Tom Robinson reveals shades of what’s to come in Watchman. In his closing argument, he affirms that all men are created equal in the eyes of the United States court. He refers to the court as “the one place where a man ought to get a square deal,” regardless of color. But it is only under this court that he maintains this commitment to equality. He is heroic in his abstract convictions, wedded as he is to the legal principles that he so valiantly upholds. Beyond this abstraction, however, he does little to defend the equal rights, opportunities, or humanity of the black people who are so obviously oppressed in his town.

To be clear, Atticus is not a racist monster. He espouses some monstrous views in Watchman. But even in Mockingbird, he is not the fairytale, anti-racist hero that many of us have imagined him to be. He is principled, but perhaps all too principled.

Thus, despite anyone’s justified reservations about Watchman’s publication, the book provides a much-needed context for and confirmation of the implicit racism in Mockingbird. Even if Watchman fades from literary significance, I hope that it will always lurk on Mockingbird’s horizon, destabilizing the moral myth of the great Atticus Finch. And perhaps today’s teachers can ask their students to do some of this destabilizing work themselves.

They can ask young readers to get to know both Atticus Finches.

Instead of only praising Atticus’s moral virtues—and to be clear, he has many—teachers should also ask students to unearth his racism, hidden as it is beneath his unwavering politeness and gentility. They should ask what it means for Tom Robinson’s story to be told through the lens of a nice, white man and his two white children. They should ask students what it means for racism to look and sound genteel (as it does through the words of Atticus Finch), for unjust power dynamics to appear as sweet and slow-moving as Maycomb, Alabama itself.

The history of racism in the United States is ugly and brutal. But if young readers and learners only ever discuss it in the context of its most shocking brutality, it becomes all too easy for them to miss the many instances of structurally reinforced racism that persist in contemporary U.S. society, too. This racism is so socially instituted and so culturally embedded that many people can’t even see when it’s right in front of them—even when it’s right in the words of one of the great moral heroes of American literature.

The necessity of learning to see the racism that’s just right in front of us just might make both Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird timelier than ever.

 

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Book Nerdery, Volume 2

The Reluctant Midwife, Patricia Harman

The Reluctant Midwife: A Hope River Novel is a sequel to Patricia Harman’s 2013 novel, The Midwife of Hope River. Set in the same West Virginia town, each novel focuses the trials and joys and skills and insights of community midwives during the Great Depression. In The Reluctant Midwife, the central character and narrator is a nurse, Becky Myers, who is caring for a disabled physician and struggling to find work. She is not a midwife: at least at the novel’s beginning. But then her midwife friend, Patience Murphy–incidentally, the central character in The Midwife of Hope River–urges her to start catching babies, both as a way to help Patience and to earn some extra money. Becky resists. She finds birth frightening and unpredictable. It makes her squeamish. But she does what she can, mostly because she has no other choice.

Becky and Patience attend births primarily at home, as most rural midwives did in the 1930’s United States. Patience teaches Becky to encourage laboring women to move and eat and drink, and she helps to transform Becky’s  approach to childbirth. In fact, after attending a twin birth, Becky observes:

I have never given birth. Never wanted to. It horrified me to watch women scream and cry through labor until someone could put them under anesthesia, but this is different, and now that it’s over, I see that all that we did in the hospital and the clinic and even at Dr. Blum’s homebirths was more comfort to ourselves than to really help the mother.

Becky’s initial reluctance toward midwifery is a nice juxtaposition to the current cultural conception of midwifery as a calling, as a profession that draws “birth junkies” and those with pre-formed passions for pregnancy, birth, and babies. Becky is dragged into midwifery. Becky catches babies because she must: because she needs the money, and because at one point on the novel, there is no one else in the town who can catch babies. Thus, the love that she eventually finds for midwifery–and the other ways in which love grows in her life–isn’t saccharine or squishy. It’s fresh and honest and different.

This is the third book of Harman’s that I’ve read. (I read The Midwife of Hope River on my own, and I reviewed Harman’s memoir, Arms Wide Open, on my previous blog.) In each book, I’ve felt drawn to Harman’s depictions of the natural world and the uncertain, mostly beautiful, sometimes terrifying realities of childbirth. Perhaps this is because Harman writes what she knows. And on these topics, she knows plenty.

Harman lived on rural communes all over the United States in the sixties and seventies. She writes like someone who has taken the time to immerse themselves in the natural world and to observe it without distraction. In this and other respects, she shows a remarkable attention to detail. Similarly, Harman brings a great depth of knowledge about birth to her stories. After starting out as a lay midwife, Harman later became a Certified-Nurse Midwife and continues to practice alongside her ob-gyn husband in West Virginia. Though neither she nor her husband attends births any longer, her stories always reflect her rich and varied experiences with birth. In fact, Harman writes with great balance about birth. She knows well the beauty of birth. She knows the sights and sounds and rhythms of uninterrupted, naturally unfolding labors. But she also knows that medical interventions are sometimes necessary and even life-saving. This sort of balance makes for a satisfying read–at least for someone like me, who is a former birth doula.

 

With that said, I’d recommend The Reluctant Midwife to all my birth-junkie, birth-passionate friends. Birth is central to the book, after all. But The Reluctant Midwife is also about the intersections of history and class and rural life and the New Deal and work and medicine and friendship and family. It’s relevant–and a good read, for that matter–for anyone who shares those interests too.

 

I received a complimentary copy of The Reluctant Midwife for purposes of this review. I received no additional compensation from the author or publisher.

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Book Nerdery, Volume 1

It’s time for my very first round of book reviews! Here are my rules and parameters for my “Volumes of Book Nerdery”:

1) I only agree to review books that I actually want to read.*

2) In this space, I’m only going to write book reviews for books that I think others should read.

That’s it. Just two rules. Or two parameters. Or one rule and one parameter. Or however you’d like to divvy up my self-imposed limits.

(*Having once written a mildly popular blog, I get book review requests from editors, authors, and publishing companies at least three or four times each day. It’s not an entirely terrible problem for a self-described book nerd to have. Except when those pitches start with “Dear Mommy” or “Dear Mommy Blogger.” Ugh. Just no.)

Let the wildish, book nerd rumpus begin.

The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century*

Shannon Drury is a badass feminist parent. She’s the author of The Radical Housewife blog, the former president of Minnesota NOW, an at-home parent, and a fellow contributor to The Good Mother Myth. As of this year, she’s also the author of a new memoir, The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century.

I read The Radical Housewife, and I liked it. And I liked it not just because the book is deliciously accessible–at least for a parent like myself who might only get a few moments each day to pore over a book. I also liked it because Drury does a beautiful job of weaving her personal story with the political realities and intersections of parenting, gender, class, race, and feminism in the 21st century United States. It’s a memoir with real, effective political teeth. It places mothers right in the thick of the feminist movement and demands that no one erase the importance of their identity, work, and activism from that movement. That’s something to celebrate.

Drury also has an uncanny ability to spell out her arguments in a way that both disarms her opposition and reflects her compassion for others. In one moment, she even describes herself as a “bitch with a tender, squishy heart.” This is, I think, the epitome of what it means to be a badass feminist. And Drury skillfully applies this particular badassery to her activism (on reproductive rights, inclusive schools, and more) and to her reflections on parenting (and depression, race and class privilege, and identity).

Now for the disclaimers. I know some fellow feminist parents who will read her book and disagree with Drury on more than a few points. They might take issue with her declaration that liberal parents who abdicate public schools are hypocrites. They might cringe at her characterization of her teenage-parent neighbor. They might disagree with her positions on abortion, activist strategies, and more.

And though these disagreements might arise, I’d still recommend the book to these parents. I’d even recommend it to my not-yet-identifying-as-feminist parent friends. Why? Because these disagreements are important. Because interacting with arguments that challenge one’s own beliefs is an important exercise. And because  learning how to disagree with fellow feminists on smaller issues and still unite on the broader ones is something that can take any one person’s feminist badassery up a few notches.

One of my favorite passages:

“If I love my child, I am a good mother. If I resent my child, I am a bad mother. If I love my child enough to go to therapy every week, I am a good mother. If I have to go to therapy in the first place, I am a bad mother…

…Idealization of motherhood and mothering forever traps us in this either/or state. It robs us of our own complexity and of our ability to see ourselves as genuinely interconnected. With this social expectation in place, burnout is stigmatized, not anticipated.”

 

 Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science (and What I’’ve Learned So Far)*

I agreed to review this book primarily because of its subtitle. In addition to being a book nerd, I’m also a nerd for parenting tips and advice that are science-based (in a totally nuanced, contextualized, and culturally-sensitive way, of course).

Tracy Cutchlow’s book provides mostly sound, balanced advice for parents and parents-to-be. The guide is immensely accessible, with an approachable tone, easily comprehensible language, lots of lists, sidebars, and short sections on topics ranging from preparation to love to discipline to movement. You don’t have to read the book cover to cover. You could even pick one small section to read and learn plenty from it. This is, I think, an enormous strength for a book intended for people who might only be sleeping in two-to-three-hour chunks of time.

Zero to Five also includes a stunning variety of photographs (taken by Betty Udeson) depicting various aspects of parenting life. There are parents and caregivers of different races, religions, and generations. In some photos, there are fathers who are actively care-giving and mothers who are, in the background, obviously enjoying a break from parenting. There are even messy rooms! I do think that these photos can have a profound impact on new parents who are looking for images that represent the reality–rather than the stylized dream–of parenting.

Though Zero to Five is technically science-based, and though Cutchlow lists her reference on her website, I would have liked to see her delve into the science behind her advice in a bit more depth. I was a little disappointed that she didn’t always include a multiplicity of research articles (as opposed to high-quality news articles) in her reference list. Perhaps that’s just the academic in me. I would also have liked her to have written a bit more on the science behind the relative safety of formula feeding. It’s almost as if she assumes that her readers are all breastfeeders, and exclusive breastfeeders at that. The reality is likely very far from the truth, and new parents deserve sound, evidence-based tips when it comes to all forms of infant-feeding.

One of my favorite passages:

“Not that all parenting will suddenly become easy. With a baby, just about every day has highs and lows. Woven throughout moments of frustration, anxiety, and exhaustion are moments of such immense joy, strength, determination, humor, and love. These blissful times more than erase the hard ones.

I remember one sunny day when my baby was 7 or 8 months old. Walking through a beautiful forested park, I told her how the leaves had fallen from the trees. I sat in a swing with her facing me in my lap, and as we swung, she leaned against my chest and smiled a supremely content little smile. This made such happiness well up inside me that I laughed out loud, hugged her to me, and said, ‘I love you so much!'”

Moments like these come from a deep connection with a person. You can feel it with friends or lovers occasionally, but with a child you get to feel it several times a day in such a pure sense. It makes you realize that’s what’s most important in life–our connections as humans.”

 

(*I received  complimentary copies of these books for purposes of this review. These links are affiliate links.)

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