‘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.

Animal Wise: Fit for a queen

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For a delightful tribute to Dash (and Tori, who plays him), visit the New Hampshire PBS site. (Photo courtesy New Hampshire PBS)

If you are a fan of the “Victoria” series and have not seen Season 2, Episodes 3 and 4, you may want to stop reading here. Even if you have seen it, it wouldn’t hurt to have a tissue handy.

How many twenty-somethings today could rule a nation? Before you answer that, let’s revise the question to: How many twenty-somethings of any era could rule a nation without the love, companionship, and guidance of a wise soul? I’m not talking about Prince Albert or Lord M, but Dash, Victoria’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who was her constant companion from her isolated girlhood into the beginning of her life as a queen, wife, and mother.

Dash (played by Tori, who had the same role in the 2009 movie “The Young Victoria”) appears in many scenes with Victoria, usually in her lap, on her bed, or on a nearby chair. This is a dog who knows his place, and he observes everything that goes on and listens to all that is said (and unsaid) by his beloved human. There is nothing one would not do for the other — not for personal or political gain, but purely for love and perhaps the occasional treat. He was the one being in the world who did not care about her parentage or power. Dash cared simply and honestly for Victoria — not by doing, but by being.

Shouldn’t everyone with a country, corporation, or consciousness to run have that? Especially during the almost-adult to stuff-just-got-real-adult transition. Pepper, a miniature Schnauzer mix, saw me from eighth grade to my early journalism career and almost through graduate school. When I imagine those years without her, I see a lot more sadness and judgement and a lot less growth, acceptance, and fun. One little dog made a big difference for me and the people and animals around me to this day, and I’m no queen.

When it became apparent at the beginning of the episode that Dash may not be doing so well, I braced myself, but of course the tears flowed when he died. I love his epitaph:

His attachment was without selfishness,
His playfulness without malice,
His fidelity without deceit,
READER, if you would live beloved and die regretted, profit by the example of DASH.

A sweet, perceptive two-minute video about Dash can be seen on the New Hampshire PBS website.

The initially crusty, but increasingly insightful Duchess of Buccleuch becomes the conduit, in Episode 4, for a new puppy entering the queen’s orbit. An unauthorized leak in the royal bedchamber points to the need for a bit of training for the pup, but we are left assured that Victoria’s education will continue.