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Harper Lee’s new novel is a story of lost innocence

Like her classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the Harper Lee novel out on July 14 is a coming of age story.

And not just for Scout Finch.

“Go Set a Watchman” is set in the famous fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the mid-1950s, 20 years after “To Kill a Mockingbird” takes place. Scout Finch, now a grown woman known by her given name Jean Louise, is visiting from New York, unsure of whether to marry a local suitor who she has known since childhood and enduring a painful contrast between her new life and the ways of her hometown.

Scout is no longer the tomboy we know from “Mockingbird,” but has transformed from an “overalled, fractious, gun-slinging creature into a reasonable facsimile of a human being.” She is “oppressed” by Maycomb, finds it petty and provincial. And she is shaken by the response to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 that declared segregation in schools is “inherently unequal.”

There is nervous talk of blacks holding public office, and marrying whites. One prominent resident warns Scout that the court moved too quickly, that blacks aren’t ready for full equality and the South has every right to object to interference from the NAACP and others.

“Can you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily problems?” he says.

That resident, to the profound dismay of his daughter, and likely to millions of “Mockingbird” readers, is Atticus Finch.

“First Woody Allen, then Bill Cosby, now Atticus Finch,” tweeted New Republic senior editor Herr Jeet, responding to early reports about the book. “You can’t trust anyone anymore.”

In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” winner of the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, Atticus risks his physical safety to defend a black man accused of rape. He invokes the Declaration of Independence during the trial and argues for the sanctity of the legal system. Privately, he wonders why “reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up.”

“I just hope that Jem and Scout come to me for their answers instead of listening to the town. I hope they trust me enough,” he says, referring to Jean Louise and her older brother.

In “Go Set a Watchman,” a 72-year-old Atticus laments the Supreme Court ruling and invokes the supposed horrors of Reconstruction as he imagines “state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ‘em.”

A tearful Scout tells the man she worshipped growing up: “You’re the only person I’ve ever fully trusted and now I’m done for.”

Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter, said she discovered the book last year. It has been called by Amazon.com its most popular pre-order since the last Harry Potter story.  Anticipating fierce resistance to the portrayal of Atticus, publisher HarperCollins issued a statement late Friday.

“The question of Atticus’s racism is one of the most important and critical elements in this novel, and it should be considered in the context of the book’s broader moral themes,” the statement reads.

“’Go Set a Watchman’ explores racism and changing attitudes in the South during the 1950s in a bold and unflinching way.”

Lee is 89, living in an assisted facility in her native Monroeville, Alabama, and has not spoken to the media in decades. In a statement issued in February, when her publisher stunned the world by announcing a second Lee novel was coming, she noted that “Watchman” was the original story.

“My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel (what became ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’) from the point of view of the young Scout,” she said.

HarperCollins has said “Watchman” is unaltered from Lee’s initial draft.

The current book will certainly raise questions, only some of which only Lee can answer. Why did she approve the book’s release after seemingly accepting, even welcoming, the fact that “Mockingbird” would be her only novel?  How well does she remember its contents? Did her editor resist because of its political content? How autobiographical is “Watchman,” which roughly follows the path of Lee’s life in the 1950s? Does she consider the Atticus of “Watchman” more “real” than the courageous attorney of “Mockingbird”?

And how surprised should any of us be?

Atticus is hardly the only old man to fear change, or seemingly enlightened white to reveal common prejudices. Around the time Lee was working on “Watchman,” an essay by Nobel laureate William Faulkner was published in Life magazine. Faulkner had long been considered a moderate on race, praised for novels that challenged the South to confront its past. But in “A Letter to the North,” he sounds like Atticus as he considers the impact of the Supreme Court ruling.

“I have been on record as opposing the forces in my native country which would keep the condition out of which this present evil and trouble has grown. Now I must go on record as opposing the forces outside the South which would use legal or police compulsion to eradicate that evil overnight,” he wrote.

“I was against compulsory segregation. I am just as strongly against compulsory integration. … So I would say to the NAACP and all the organizations who would compel immediate and unconditional integration ‘Go slow now. Stop now for a time, a moment.’”

Battle for U.S. Senate may be decided in the South

The South is where President Barack Obama and Democrats long have struggled, and it’s where the party’s toughest battleground will be this year in the fight for control of the U.S. Senate.

Three incumbents must face the consequences of having voted for Obama’s health care law, but Republicans first must settle primaries in several states, including a challenge to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

All but one of the potentially competitive races is in a state Obama lost in 2012, and the president remains deeply unpopular among whites in the region. Republicans are optimistic they can achieve the six-seat gain needed to retake the Senate.

Democratic Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas are on the ballot for the first time since voting for the Affordable Care Act in 2010. The law’s wobbly start and its image as a power-grab have the incumbents on the defensive, emphasizing local issues and avoiding unnecessary mention of the second-term president who leads their party.

Obama’s Gallup job approval lingers in the low 40s, and is even lower in several states with pivotal Senate races. Republicans want to feed on that and follow the same road map that carried them to a House majority in 2010, Obama’s first midterm election.

“Democrats hope this doesn’t become a national election, but we don’t think that’s the case,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short.

Democrats want the Republican primaries to project divisions and extremism. With Congress more unpopular than the president, they seek to highlight those Republican Senate candidates who are already serving in the House.

In 2012, Democrats defied early predictions and expanded their Senate majority by winning in GOP-leaning Missouri and Indiana, where conservative candidates tripped over their own pronouncements on rape and other issues.

A look at Senate races across the South:

• Arkansas sets up as a proxy for the tussle between the White House and House Republicans. Pryor, whose father served as governor and U.S. senator, is the last remaining Democrat in the state’s Capitol Hill delegation. His Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, is a young conservative favorite.

Cotton and Pryor avoided primaries. Cotton voted with GOP leaders in October to end the partial federal government shutdown, but Democrats say they can paint him as extreme. They’re already pointing to his vote against the new farm bill.

Arkansas voters, who give Obama a 35 percent approval rating, have seen a barrage of ads reminding them that Pryor was “the last vote” on the health care bill.

• In Georgia, where Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is retiring, a May primary is almost certain to lead to a runoff.

Three congressmen – Jack Kingston and doctors Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun – each says his record proves his conservative bona fides.

Kingston, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, tells voters what he’s cut in the federal budget.

Gingrey’s slogan is “Repeal or go home,” and he’s banking on his opposition to the president’s health law carrying the day.

Broun, who once declared evolutionary theory “lies straight from the pit of hell,” says his colleagues are poseurs. He tried to prove his conservative credentials by holding a drawing for an AR-15 military style rifle.

Karen Handel, a former secretary of state and commission chairman in Georgia’s most populous county, says she’s got the right experience for the job, and without the blemish of serving in Congress.

Former Dollar General and Reebok CEO David Perdue, the cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, says business experience should trump the lot of “career politicians,” and he’s said he’s willing to finance his own race.

The Democratic favorite is Michelle Nunn, the daughter for former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn. Democrats are confident that she can pull in just enough Mitt Romney voters – rural and small-town whites fond of her father, and suburban white women in metropolitan Atlanta – for an upset.

• In Kentucky, McConnell finds himself criticized from the left and right. Wealthy businessman Matt Bevin may be a long shot in the Republican primary, but he’s got enough organization and money to grab attention as he brands McConnell a capitulator to Obama.

Democrats back Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a party financier’s daughter who has gotten campaign advice and help from former President Bill Clinton. Like Nunn in Georgia, Grimes wants to win big among women. Like Bevin, she is going after McConnell as part of the problem in Washington, but she also says McConnell cares more about his national party post than about Kentucky.

McConnell has plenty of money to respond. He’d already spent $10 million by the end of 2013.

• In Louisiana, Landrieu is seeking a fourth term never having topped 52.1 percent of the vote. She won twice in Democratic presidential years. She won in 2002, a midterm year, by running as a centrist who could work with a Republican White House. This time, she has to run with Obama’s negatives – a 40 percent approval rating in Louisiana, according to Gallup – without having him at the top of the ticket to excite Democrats, particularly black voters.

U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy has the backing of national Republican leaders and donors. But he once contributed to Landrieu and, as a state senator, he pushed a proposal similar to Obama’s health insurance exchanges. At least two other Republicans will be on the all-party primary ballot. Unless one primary candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates go to a runoff in December. That second round of voting might be Cassidy’s best shot at winning the Senate seat.

Landrieu defends her health care vote but has clamored for changes to the law. Democrats cite her influence as head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, saying her post is a boon for Louisiana’s oil-and-gas industry and hammering Cassidy as a rubber stamp for House Republicans. Both she and Cassidy champion flood insurance relief for coastal residents.

• Mississippi hasn’t seen Sen. Thad Cochran truly campaign in decades. That’s changing with a challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who boasts endorsements from national conservative and tea party groups. Cochran backers answered with a super political action committee organized by Henry Barbour, the nephew of the former RNC chairman and Gov. Haley Barbour.

McDaniel wants to turn Cochran’s greatest asset – his experience and what it’s meant financially to Mississippi – into a liability by making the incumbent the face of the nation’s $17 trillion debt. The Cochran team attacks McDaniel’s legislative votes supporting bond debt for public projects. The comparison, McDaniel says, is intellectually dishonest. Henry Barbour counters that McDaniel casting Cochran as a “big-government liberal” is just as ludicrous.

Democrats recruited former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers and hope that move positions them for a surprise November victory if McDaniel defeats Cochran.

• North Carolina voters give Obama a 43 percent job approval rating, and some surveys put Hagan’s even lower. It’s tricky enough that she decided not to appear with Obama in January when he spoke at North Carolina State University.

Republicans have a free-for-all primary.

North Carolina’s House speaker, Thom Tillis, who led a conservative resurgence in the Statehouse, is the national Republican favorite, but he must contend with several conservative challengers. If Tillis emerges, Democrats plan to use his legislative agenda – making it harder to vote, cutting public education financing and tightening abortion regulations – against him.

• In West Virginia, U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito avoided a bruising GOP primary, enabling her to build an organization and raise money for a race in an increasingly Republican state. Secretary of State Natalie Tennant will try to hold retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s seat for Democrats.

• In Virginia, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner is the most popular politician, and Obama won the commonwealth twice. But in Ed Gillespie, a former national GOP chairman, Republicans found a candidate who can raise the money to compete.

A road filled with musical scenery

Life in 1880s rural Wisconsin was challenging enough working the farm, dealing with the harsh winters and integrating immigrants with the “Yankees” in the developing Midwest. Add love to the mix and you have “Main-Travelled Roads,” a charming remembrance of the era set to music.

Based on three of the 11 short stories that compose the 1891 book of the same name by Wisconsin-born author Hamlin Garland, “Roads” evokes a time when people took the time to “court properly” and life appeared as simple as a stalk of wheat blowing in the prairie wind. Three couples travel the play’s roads: Delia and Otis, who find love late in life; Ed, the creamery man, and Nina, the Dutch immigrant who teaches him what really counts in love; and Aggie and Will, young lovers separated by misunderstanding.

Part of the charm of this production lies in the music by Paul Libman, which evokes the simple, innocent ways of life back then. The simple melodies, performed by musical director Alissa Rhode on piano and Rich Higdon on bass, exemplify the close-knit feel of the show. But the music has emotional range, from the humorous, upbeat “Small Town Telegraph,” in which Will and Aggie mock the townspeople who’ve already been talking about their date the night before, to the tender ballad “Another Surprise,” in which two women find friendship in unexpected but healing ways.

In her directorial debut, veteran local performer Molly Rhode pulls all the twists and turns of “Road” together in a very entertaining way. But the strength of this production rests squarely on its quartet of actors, who portray 10 different characters.

Fortunately, Dave Hudson’s book (he also wrote the lyrics) makes the character changes easy to follow and understand. The real life husband-and-wife team of Clare Arena Haden and Scott Haden work naturally together as Ed and Nina. Her comic timing and strong vocals complement his sweet-natured but ignorant ways of courting. Chase Stoeger skillfully captures the restless, jealous spirit of Will as a young man, balancing it well with the tempered, wiser Will of later years.  

Jennifer L. Shine fulfills the demanding role of Aggie, the young, innocent teen who learns the hard way about settling for less. Shine captures the effervescent spirit of the youthful Aggie and transforms convincingly into the well-worn, weary mother trapped in a bad marriage to Will’s rough-edged rival Dave (also played by Scott Haden).

Lisa Schlenker’s set designs evoke the warm, rustic, wide-open prairie spaces with a less-is-more approach, complemented by Jason Fassl’s effective lighting that streaks fiery sunset into cool twilight.

“Main-Travelled Roads” runs through Oct. 31 in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theater Centre, 158 N. Broadway. Call 414-291-7800 or visit
www.milwaukeechambertheatre.com