‘Watchman’: True colors or subtle shades?

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What do we do when the distinct colors of childhood show up in shades we couldn’t discern before? (Photo by Alexas_Fotos)

When illusions about people and places we have long loved come crashing down, we are left to either reassemble something we can live with or walk away.

But were the things we thought we knew, in fact, illusions?

Such are the perplexities faced by Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, now twenty-six, in the late Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins, 2015). She returns home to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City to visit her father, Atticus, who is in his seventies and struggling with rheumatoid arthritis but still practicing law. Working alongside Atticus is Henry Clinton, Jean Louise’s lifelong friend, current boyfriend, and probable fiancé.

Only this is not the Maycomb we and Jean Louise knew in To Kill a Mockingbird  (originally published in 1960 by J.B. Lippincott & Co.), where Atticus courageously defended a black man against a false rape charge. Now, in the 1950s, tensions over racial justice and who has the right to make the rules for whom are turning Southern communities, families, heads, and hearts into battlegrounds.

Sitting in her old spot in the courthouse’s “Colored” balcony, where she and brother Jem used to watch Atticus at work, Jean Louise observes a citizens’ council meeting. Both Atticus and Henry are present. She is sickened not only by the racist language and ideas she hears, but by the apparent agreement of both men.

Difficult (and rambling) conversations follow; with Henry, with former housekeeper Calpurnia, with offbeat intellectual Uncle Jack, and finally and most painfully, with Atticus. Readers who have spent half a century with this family no doubt share the young woman’s anguish.

What Jean Louise is now seeing — for example, her father’s view of blacks as childlike and incapable and Henry’s need to belong at any cost — has always been there. Her hometown has long been segregated. It would be easy to say Jean Louise, who has been living up North, is the one who changed and leave it at that. However, our way of seeing things changes as we grow up and create our own realities, no matter where we are.

When the distinct colors of childhood give way to a puzzling array of shades and gradations, it can feel like a betrayal … especially at a time when basic human rights and dignity are being questioned and fought over. Jean Louise, navigating the shifting terrain of young adulthood in this setting, has to decide whether and how to find a way forward.

As I understand it, Watchman was Lee’s original novel, and a publisher convinced her to turn the flashback sequences into a separate work, which became Mockingbird. There was some controversy, just before the release of Watchman, over whether the then elderly and ailing Lee actually wanted it to be published. She died in 2016. What I wonder is: If the younger Scout and Atticus had lived between the same covers as their older counterparts, would it still have become a beloved classic? These questions cannot be answered.

What I can say is this: If Watchman taints our appreciation of Mockingbird, we are in the same boat as Jean Louise, trying to reconcile what we knew with what is now before us. Perhaps, in these equally polarizing and vitriolic times, that is a useful exercise.

Listening to the birds

29868587Birds bridge the ordinary and the unknown as few other creatures can. In Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation, novelist, essayist, and children’s author Kyo Maclear details a year of urban birdwatching and life shifting in her home city of Toronto.

While coping with her father’s illness, the married mother of two young sons happened upon the photography of a musician and urban birdwatcher, and was riveted. “These birds lived in gardens of steel, glass, concrete, and electricity,” she said, but the message in the photos was not one of environmental sins, but of love for “the dirty, plain, beautiful, funny places many of us call home.”

The musician (as he is known throughout the book) became Maclear’s guide on a number of bird walks throughout the year. As so often happens when we take up something new, ostensibly to distract ourselves, the insights that emerge bring us right back to face the music, if we are willing.

Accompanying the musician to his father’s aviary of finches, for example, and feeling like a “galumphing invader” among the tiny, captive creatures, sparks reflection on the quality we most associate with birds: freedom. We are all captive in some way to something, Maclear said — such as the cages of ego and habit we may or may not recognize. A small birdwatching excursion to a marina on the edge of the city not only teaches her how to distinguish among trumpeter, mute, and tundra swans but becomes an almost meditative experience of simultaneous waiting and experiencing.

As she began to talk about the subject of this book, Maclear was surprised by the number and diversity of people who shared their own bird stories and passions — rich hobbyists, former POWs, people who traded the bottle for binoculars. “They had lost something, hoped for transcendence, wondered how best to live this life. Birds spoke to their irrevocably blue parts, their hopeful parts.”

The birders she encountered in books and in the world shared little except this, she concluded: “If you listen to birds, every day will have a song in it.”

 

 

 

Salem: Which was witch

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See stacyschiff.com

As we have seen, especially in recent days, fear makes people do crazy, horrific things.

It’s the same old crap we dealt with three centuries ago. The people of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 were nothing if not scared. They lived in a new, untamed land under constant threat of Native American attack and abduction. Their Puritan beliefs had them either righteously lording it over others or falling miserably short despite their best efforts and greatest sacrifices.

The notion that there were witches among them — women (mostly) who had signed a pact with the devil and were torturing people like 12-year-old Ann Putnam — gave all that free-floating fear a place to land.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff helps us see and feel this brief but devastating chapter of American history in The Witches: Salem, 1692 (Little, Brown and Company, 2015). In particular, she helps us see the day-to-day realities that allowed it to unfold.

My interest in the Salem Witch Trials increased a few years ago when I discovered a genealogical connection to some key players. Deacon Edward Putnam is my seventh great-grandfather, and he was among the accusers whose testimonies sent several innocent people to their deaths. His older brother, Thomas Putnam, appears to have been a ringleader, and Thomas’s daughter Ann was one of the young girls whose bizarre behavior set the whole mess in motion.

This was a rare moment in history in that females, and young ones at that, were calling the shots. Betty Parris, daughter of the Reverend Parris, and her cousin Abigail Williams began to have convulsive, screaming fits. Soon Ann Putnam and other girls showed similar symptoms. A doctor said the girls were bewitched, and the girls began to name a series of local women as their tormentors, also claiming to see ghosts, spectral versions of the living, and the devil.

It was a reality show-worthy spectacle, by all accounts. Then, as now, nobody does drama like a girl on the threshold of womanhood. Then, as now, people at the bottom of the heap are apt to misuse power when they suddenly find it in their hands. If one of these young ladies accused you of witchcraft, you were as good as convicted. The only defense against an accusation of witchcraft was a good offense — shifting the accusation onto someone else.

Schiff notes that young Ann Putnam predicted future events and recalled others that predated her birth. And without question, Thomas Putnam had suffered many losses at that point in his life — inheritance, land, and children. It’s not hard to believe he was motivated to use the force of the law to settle some scores. However, as Schiff says, “Putnam had a much-loved, perceptive, desperately convulsing twelve-year-old at home. He was soon to have a deranged wife as well. It is difficult to believe he had a long-range strategy at the start.”

Thomas and his wife both died in 1699, leaving Ann to raise her younger siblings. At age 27, Ann, seeking full church membership, apologized to the Salem village congregation for her significant role in the events of 1692. Out of the 19 who had been put to death, she had testified against all but two. It was a “devil made me do it” apology, but it was more than any of the other accusers offered. She died a decade later.

If you’re looking for the Cliff’s Notes version of the Salem witch trials, or easy answers, you won’t find them in this dense, detailed work. You will, however, find the humanity behind this surreal chapter of America’s story.