Josh Shaffer

Triangle readers still love Atticus, warts and all

As the sun rose Tuesday, Jim Henley raced to Quail Ridge Books, beating the staff to the door at 6:15 a.m., first in line to buy his copy of the endlessly ballyhooed follow-up to Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Henley’s devotion to Atticus Finch compelled him to the bookstore, despite reports that the sequel transforms the world’s most upright fictional lawyer into an ugly, flawed mortal – a racist hobbled by bitterness and age.

Some Triangle readers so detested the idea of Finch as a bigot that they vowed not to crack the new novel’s spine, disregarding it as a rough draft Lee never intended to publish. But Henley wanted more from the character who enchanted him as a teen, and a steady line of Finch fans followed him to the cash register. Total number of pre-ordered copies of “Go Set A Watchman” at Quail Ridge: 260.

“He was always a hero,” said Henley, retired at 63, “and to see him in a condemning way, far from his kind nature, is a little disconcerting. But not enough to keep me away and not get up at a quarter of six to get here.”

For 55 years, no fictional character has stood taller than Atticus Finch – a bespectacled monument to decency, a guidebook to morality in a rumpled white suit.

Three generations of readers discovered him in their high school classrooms, a lighthouse to pilot them through their confused and vulnerable years. Millions more saw his character crystallized by Gregory Peck on the screen, the ultimate portrayal of frustrated righteousness.

Early-bird fans who picked up their copies Tuesday scribbled their favorite “Mockingbird” lines on a giant poster Quail Ridge hung on the wall: “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them,” and “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks,” and “Hey, Boo.”

So this sequel, set in the 1950s as Atticus’ daughter, Scout, returns to Alabama from New York, puts fans in a literary quandary. Atticus a bigot?

“Life happens,” said Bess Creech, 39, a fan who hit Quail Ridge at 7:30 a.m. “He’s a multi-dimensional person. I was talking to my mom and she said, ‘Oh, he turns out so terrible.’ Tell me any old person who hasn’t gotten terrible.”

I picked up a copy of “Watchman” myself, and after an extremely quick read, I can tell you that this Atticus is no Gregory Peck.

He reads a pamphlet titled The Black Plague. He attends Citizens’ Council meetings where speakers rail about a mongrelized race. He says this: “Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?” Jean Louise, his daughter better-known as Scout, denounces him, comparing him to Hitler.

For some Triangle readers, news of this plot development read like a bad twist ending. Their curiosity stopped at the previews.

“I refuse to read Harper Lee’s new book,” said Charlie Putnam, a senior at Johnston County Early College Academy. “Atticus Finch can’t be anything other than a hero.”

Thus echoed Durham author Haven Kimmel in a Facebook post.

“I won’t be buying it,” she said. “I won’t read it. The fact of it breaks my heart. I trust my instincts and I trust the word of my friends in publishing on this one. No judgment for anyone who chooses otherwise.”

There’s no telling exactly what Lee meant by this second novel, given her private nature and rare comments. Did she mean to set fire to her famous character or present him in a fuller portrait? Is this story, written years before “Mockingbird,” an earlier attempt at tackling race in the Jim Crow South, or is it the unpolished draft that editors shaped into a classic?

Either way, the chance to buy a 278-page book pulled people out of bed at dawn, and I think the Atticus we love would appreciate that.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

▪ “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

▪ “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

▪ “Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself.”

Atticus Finch in “Go Set a Watchman”

▪ “You mean because the Court said it we must take it? No ma’am. I don’t see it that way. If you think I for one citizen am going to take it lying down, you’re quite wrong.”

▪ “I’d like very much to be left alone to manage my own affairs in a live-and-let-live economy, I’d like for my state to be left along to keep house without advice from the NAACP, which knows next to nothing about its business and cares less. That organization has stirred up more trouble in the past five years –”

▪ “Let’s put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

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