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  • Writer's pictureMo Reynolds

The Fall of Atticus

I wanted to love this Go Set a Watchman

I also wanted to love Russell Crowe as Javert.

But alas, life does not always go to plan.

I still love Harper Lee and I love that she tackled some deep nuances of the South and her complicated history.

I was sitting in an American Heritage class at Brigham Young University when I realized I had been taught a different history than everyone north or west of the Confederate states.

Professor: Today we are going to start learning about the Civil War. The Civil War was fought over slavery.

Young, Over-Confident, Slightly Cocky Me Raising Hand in Auditorium of 900 people

Professor: Yes?

Me with a Southern Accent: That's not true. The Civil War was about States' Rights

Professor: Where are you from?

Young, Less-Confident Me: North Carolina

Professor: Exactly. Sit down.

I listened and realized that the War of Northern Aggression was perhaps not a title the people around me recognized. I had been taught that the war was all about states' rights. I still believe that. I also know that one of those fundamental rights was the right to own enslaved people.

AND. . it is complicated. There were people fighting in the North that had no objections to slavery. For them it was the Union. There were people fighting in the South who had no slaves. For them it was a fight of freedom. There were Yankees who did horrible things and Confederates who did beautiful things.

No war has all heroes on one side and all villians on the other. This is the exploration of Go Set at Watchman. The premise is honorable, it just isn't written as well as To Kill a Mockingbird. This makes sense when you understand that Watchman came first. I think it reads less like a novel and more like a rough draft or character study as she got to know these people better and prepared to write Mockingbird. That understanding doesn't make me like the book more, but it helps me understand the approach better. It was more telling and less showing, less anchored in a moving story and more bogged down in philosophical speeches as Lee was trying to get her mind around the complicated nature of race, humanity, and family.

Don't get me wrong--there are highlights of beauty. The story of Scout thinking she was pregnant when she was twelve made me laugh out loud. Scout as a 26 year old was a delight, but once Atticus was unveiled to her as a mere human, the novel began to read more like an essay.

There is value in reading it, in seeing Harper Lee's own failings even as Scout sees those of Atticus. His fall from diety might be painful for Scout and Mockingbird devotees, but I think any work that recognizes the complicated nature of humanity is worth its salt. We are all walking through life as best we can, imprinted by where we were born, what we were taught, and all we have seen. Slowly, we change and grow, unpacking what is right and wrong and all that is in the middle.

That process is smoother if we acknowledge our stories and the other stories of others in order to remove the shame, the pillars, the expectations, and the guilt.

And on a final note. . . I would have liked this novel a whole lot better if Dill had been it.

Come on, Harper.

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