Saturday, July 18, 2015

Atticus' Mother

I have kept them in my life and heart for all these years, Scout, Jem, Dill, Calpurnia, and most of all Atticus. I read To Kill a Mockingbird when my world was changing and the people around me, the adults around me, were frightened and sometimes mean in their talk of the world, of race. Alabama and Mississippi were battlegrounds and the adults feared that Georgia was next. An avalanche of change, left me confused and afraid, and looking for answers that I did not find, because the adults were wrong.

When I read the book, I clung to Atticus. I longed to sit in his lap and get soothing answers to my questions that felt right, that matched what I thought the world would be. I wanted him to explain to me how anyone could kill little girls my age, and why they could be allowed to get away with it. I still find it comforting to read the book again or watch the movie. Gregory Peck will always be the voice I hear with Atticus' words

Harper Lee’s book, Go Set a Watchman, is not a new book and it is not a sequel. It is the parent of Mockingbird driven by the feelings that the massive changes in the south and in our country were creating in sons and daughters of the south. As a young woman in the 50’s Jean Louise faces the same conflict I felt as a young girl in the 60’s. This book helps me understand why Mockingbird rang so true to me. Jean Louise is not the narrator, but her voice drives the story. I understand why the editors pushed her to take the voice of Scout and write that story. Scout had the clarity that only a child can have, when the world is always black and white in every sense of the word. The Atticus that young Scout grew up with could never remain the perfect icon for an adult Jean Louise.

Initially I wanted to read Watchman just to hear the voices of my old friends again. But I was afraid, afraid I would lose the Atticus who had been my rock. I know the world is populated with generations of Atticus’ children, women and men too, who found comfort, guidance and hope from the man who lived in Scout’s words.  He is still there for Jean Louise, and like her, we all need to come to terms with Atticus as a human being. If only Gregory Peck could play the role again and give us the complexity that comes with living in the world and looking at the world through adult eyes.

Harper Lee has avoided interviews since 1964. She told Oprah Winfrey, at a luncheon, that everyone thought she was Scout, but she was really Boo. I think all the characters have a lot of Harper Lee in them. It is Harper Lee who gave birth to Atticus Finch, and you can see the beginnings of him in Watchman. I found myself just as lost in Jean Louise as I was in Scout, but for different reasons. Jean Louise brought back to me the emotions and uncertainty that I felt as I read Mockingbird for the first time. He is not filtered through the eyes of a child. Scout was not afraid when she faced the mob because her innocence kept her from knowing the danger and tamed the mob. Jean Louise does not have that innocence, but she still looks at her father as if he is perfect. Discovering he is not is the essence of this book.

There is nothing to fear in Watchman, Atticus lives. Understanding that this is fiction and that the form of Atticus was still evolving does not change the role he plays in Mockingbird. He remains a moral compass that will always be a part of who I am and who many of us have become. We have just had to grow up.

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