A great teacher sees the promise of September


The back-to-school sales fliers started arriving in our mailboxes back around the 4th of July, the scariest mail of the summer for students and teachers alike. And now the moment has arrived: for much of the world, classes have resumed. At the 116-student elementary school here in Lincoln, Vermont the new year commenced last Wednesday.

It was 17 years ago that my daughter started kindergarten there, but I still have precise, vivid memories of her mother and me waiting with her for the school bus at the end of our driveway. Rather tenderly she reassured her mother that she’d be fine, telling her not to cry, and then took one of the biggest steps of her life (and I mean that quite literally): she stepped up onto the bus.

Our daughter started at the school about the same time that Anna Howell arrived in Lincoln. Anna, 42, wound up here in 1998 because she was looking for a cheap house to rent where the owner wouldn’t mind the fact that she would be moving in with her dog. She was an aspiring schoolteacher, and soon would start work at the Lincoln Community School, teaching the combined third and fourth grade class there.

First, however, she volunteered at the Lincoln Library — or, to be precise, the remnants of the Lincoln Library. In June 1998, after four weeks of rain and four inches in an hour, the usually lazy New Haven River overflowed its banks and flooded the library, destroying eighty percent of the collection and leaving all of us in the community a little unmoored. But the library reopened and newcomer Anna was there to help. Among her first friends? Four-year-old Lydia Stearns, whose grandmother Linda Norton was the librarian and whose mother Vaneasa Stearns owned the general store across the street.

“Lydia kept talking about her new friend, Anna, and wanting me to schedule a play date with Anna,” Vaneasa recalled. “So, I brought some snacks across the street for the girls, assuming that Anna was four years old, too.”

Nope. But it was an indication of how generous with her time Anna would be as a teacher. She was certainly among my daughter’s favorite teachers there (and anywhere), and still teaches the same grades in the same school. This past week she welcomed 15 students to her classroom.

“August is one long Sunday afternoon,” she told me when I asked her what this time of the year feels like to her. “There’s a sense of foreboding. It’s bittersweet. But it’s also exciting. I see the kids and they’re ready to be with their buddies. There’s the novelty of packing their backpacks and getting back on the bus.”

She volunteered that she particularly enjoys working with third and fourth graders: “I love that 8 and 9-year-olds have a totally unreasonable, wonderful sense of their abilities. They go grab paper for a story and grab a hundred sheets because they plan to write a novel. When we come up with plans for public service, they intend to save the world.”

Of course, that also means, “Invariably they bite off more than they can chew, and so it’s a fragile place, too. They come up against their limits.”

One of the reasons why I appreciate living in Lincoln is that little school. It was such a gift as a parent to know my daughter was there, learning from teachers like Anna: educators who are not merely creative and fun, but seem always to have their students’ backs.

A few years after Anna met Lydia Stearns at the library, she had the girl’s older sister Alyssa in her class. Alyssa would be hospitalized for three months that year and endure five separate surgeries — one at Boston Children’s Hospital. Her mother recalls everyone’s fear that Alyssa had missed so much school that she would have to repeat the grade. “But Anna said, ‘No way. Alyssa is staying with her class,’” Vaneasa told me. “Anna would come by our house after school, put on her surgical mask, and work with her for hours.” And, indeed, Alyssa did just fine and moved on to fifth grade with her peers.

Yes, the start of the school year can make us a little wistful. But when our children are in the care of a really good teacher, we feel a bit like those 9-year-olds, and we see only promise and potential. The days may be growing short, but the vista is limitless.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 30, 2015. There is now one Idyll Banter column remaining. After 23 and a half years, Chris will be filing his last column next Sunday. His new novel, “The Guest Room,” arrives on January 5, 2016.)

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A Ferris wheel is still food for the soul

(photo by Victoria Blewer)

(photo by Victoria Blewer)

A couple of years ago, Chris Ashby, director of operations at the Champlain Valley Exposition, saw three boys peering longingly through a fence at the Champlain Valley Fair. He guessed the kids were 8 or 9 years old. On the other side of fence was the fair’s tractor pull, and Ashby could hear the indefatigable growl of the engines. He gave the kids tickets so they could watch the competition properly. “They didn’t walk into the venue and they didn’t run into the venue,” he recalled. “They bounced.”

That’s what the fair is all about, Ashby told me, adding, “You see an inherent delight on all the kids’ faces when you walk around.”

The fair opens in five days, a 10-day bacchanal to commemorate the end of summer. For some people, the fair is a celebration of agrarian Vermont, with majestic Morgans and Belgians, Holsteins with “good dairy strength,” and pumpkins the size of Mini Coopers. For others, it’s the midway, with rides called Zyklon, Zipper, and Fireball that are designed to terrify us — yet with the presumption that we are nonetheless perfectly safe. And for still others, it’s the food: the fried dough, the maple creemees, and (yes) the pork boners.

I have gone annually since I was a young man, watching my daughter and her friends grow from savoring the classic carousel to standing in line for the centrifugal (and myriad) vomitrons. My wife and I met the Batman there. We watched the dogs that dive and the pigs that race. Every year I consume a bloomin’ onion on my own; she eats all things maple.

And while so much of the fair is predictable by design — we want there to be blue ribbons for tomatoes and cukes, we want carnies assuring us that it’s easy to win a stuffed Pink Panther as tall as a toddler — there are always moments of re-invention. This year there is a home brew contest, with the Best in Show beer getting to brew a “pilot batch” at the 14th Star Brewery in St. Albans. Chefs from the Essex Resort and Spa will be giving cooking demonstrations (although rumor has it they will not be whipping up pork boners). There will even be vegan smoothies.

There is another reason, however, that we gravitate to the Champlain Valley Fair. There is a reason that we love all the fairs that pepper Vermont in August and September. “There’s a certain amount of melancholy because it’s the end of summer,” Ashby said. “The kids are going back to school. We’re all about to change into a whole different set of clothes. Everything changes after the fair.”

In other words, this is summer’s last hurrah. We are not precisely fiddling as the season burns, but we are all cognizant that the days are growing short, there is a chill in the night air, and our tomato plants look like the tentacles from dying man o’ war jellyfish. The fair is the ritualistic point of demarcation our souls crave. We will see people there we may see once a year, returning like barn swallows to that nest they built in the rafters twelve months earlier, drawn inexorably (and magically) back. And we will connect.

Yes, much of what we will eat at the fair is empty calories. I get it. Most of the games we will play at the midway are bait-and-switch. And the rides are never as long as we’d like.

But we all also know this: there is a phosphorescent beauty in a Ferris wheel at night. There is charisma in a miniature horse. There is confidence attached to those 4-H ribbons our children earn.

And there is the bounce in all of our steps when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, someone gives us tickets to the tractor pull.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 23, 2015. There are now two Idyll Banter columns remaining. After 23 and a half years, Chris will be filing his last column on Sept. 6. Chris’s new novel, “The Guest Room,” arrives on January 5, 2016.)

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A little too much like life: Aging and the approaching end to Idyll Banter


photoIn one of the last weeks of my father’s life — though we had no idea at the time that he would be leaving us shortly as a result of a burst blood vessel in his brain — he asked me to intervene with the caregivers at his assisted living facility who felt he was too frail to shower without their help. At the time, this was only the latest indignity that he was shouldering. My negotiations with the nurses were complex and fraught, but eventually we worked out a compromise that (mostly) satisfied all parties. Nevertheless, the experience reminded me of what Philip Roth wrote in his novel, “Everyman:”

“Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.”

My father has been gone years now, and my mother died decades ago. Rarely (and only rarely) do I gaze at my phone on a Sunday afternoon and think, “Oh, I should tell Dad this,” before remembering that’s not quite possible. And never does that notion cross my mind about my mother. I didn’t even own a cell phone when she died.

As Idyll Banter winds down this summer after nearly a quarter century, I’ve looked back at many of the columns and I think some of my favorite stories were about my father and his friends as they fought that good fight against aging and death. As a culture, we’re not especially comfortable with old age. Occasionally there will be movies about the degradations that accompany the far side of 60 or 70 that will touch a nerve. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and its sequel come to mind. So do novels such as Rachel Joyce’s “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” But they’re rare.

And while much of our cultural ageism focuses on physical infirmities and the body’s inevitable decline, my sense is that increasingly it is triggered as well by technology. Yes, technology prolongs our lives. But it now moves so quickly and changes so fast that my father and his friends felt humiliated and shamed by new “gadgets” as often as they were awed by them. My father never did understand the difference between a DVD player and a laptop computer. My mother-in-law, who was considerably more tech savvy than my father, had a dial-up Internet connection until the day she died in 2011.

Let’s face it: it must have been a heck of a lot easier to earn respect as a dowager countess in “Downton Abbey” when you and the young folks spoke the same language, and no one was tweeting and texting when you were trying to carry the banner against vulgarity. (In all fairness, of course, even “Downton Abbey’s” Countess Violet Grantham had to cope with a device called a telephone.)

Consequently, it crossed my mind that perhaps I should consider writing this column as I aged, and use it to chronicle my own advancing decrepitude. I started writing Idyll Banter as a young man 23 years ago; why not write it another 23 (assuming I live anywhere near that long)? Why not record my own battles with the nurses who felt I was too old to shower alone, or my failures to grasp the grandson of the Apple Watch? After all, I was never shy when it came to celebrating my non-age-related ineptitude.

But, in the end, I feared that weekly forays into this sort of wistfulness would do me in. In the past, chronicling my father’s — and, yes, my mother-in-law’s — trials could always be interspersed with accounts of my cats’ epic turd hockey skirmishes, my daughter’s preschool (and, later, high school) adventures, or the quirkiness of our beloved Vermont.

So, when I pop back into this newspaper in the coming years with an occasional Idyll Banter column, expect it to be about the wonders of aging and not my inexorable diminishment. In the years to come, I would rather be writing about wisdom or books or (someday) my daughter’s marriage than all the things that — suddenly, inexorably — I am too old for.

In some ways, the last 815,000 words in this column were easy. The next 815,000 would have been much harder. They would, alas, have been just a little too much like life.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 16, 2015. There are now three Idyll Banter columns remaining. After 23 and a half years, Chris will be filing his last column on Sept. 6. His new novel, “The Guest Room,” arrives on January 5, 2016. You can preorder it wherever books are sold.)

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To understand Vermont, look to Georgia. . .the dog.


If you really want to understand Vermont, spend a little time with Georgia. Georgia is a 65-pound pit bull and chocolate Lab mix — a classic rescue mutt — with a wattle under her neck that could double as a change purse, but makes her no less endearing. Earlier this week, she spent two hours in the driver’s seat of one of the bulldozers constructing a new bridge here in Lincoln. The smart money said she was there hiding from the thunder that had rolled in late that morning, but her owner remains convinced she was working on her CDL: her commercial driver’s license.

Georgia’s owner is my friend and neighbor Nancy Stevens. Nancy has been in this column a lot over the past quarter century. She is the state’s first female private detective, was at different times my daughter’s preschool and Sunday School teacher, and has served the town as a selectperson, delinquent tax collector, town meeting moderator, and justice of the peace. She also, once upon a time, had llamas, which were only a problem when the mother needed to be milked because her baby insisted on trying to nurse from a barn beam. (Nancy eventually did break the baby’s addiction to pumpkin pine — with the help of another neighbor who happened to have a thousand-pound Scottish Highlander Hereford Cross beef cow as a pet, and was able to milk the mama llama until Barn Baby was willing to enjoy his llama manna straight from the source.)

In any case, Georgia is now the official mascot for Nancy’s Sunday School class at the church here in Lincoln, but she is also one of the unofficial animal ambassadors for the whole town. How well is she recognized? One of our mail carriers, Stan Bigelow, will give her a ride when he is delivering mail, bringing her three miles from the Stevens home to her pal Bella the Dog’s house in the center of town. Local builder Averi Smith has also served as an informal canine cab for Georgia, again carting her to her buddy, Bella.

And, of course, last week, she wound up in that bulldozer, and for a day became the mascot for the J. A. McDonald construction team building the new bridge across the New Haven River. “This one guy said to me that it was the funniest thing you ever saw,” Nancy told me. “Georgia jumped right into the bulldozer like it was her own vehicle.” The next day, Nancy baked the crew M&M cookies to thank them for dog-sitting Georgia through the thunderstorm.

My sense is that Lincoln is not unique. There are perhaps dozens of villages like it in Vermont, places still small enough that the people facilitate play dates between dogs, and don’t mind when one wants to help construct a new bridge.

But it runs deeper here. Much deeper. Nancy may have given a lot to this town, but she feels the town has given her far more in return. During her second bout with cancer in the early 1990s, while one of her children was a toddler and one was in preschool, five nights a week for six months people brought her family dinner. “We called it the chemo casserole parade,” she recalls. Two years ago when those children, now grown, were both going to be away for Christmas, she returned home after the Christmas Eve service at the church to her quiet, empty house, and found a massive Christmas stocking hanging beside her fireplace filled with dozens of “wild, wacky gifts.” (It took a little gumshoe work on her part to find out who the elves were, but eventually she did.)

“The town has changed in the last 30 years, but the spirit of community here hasn’t,” Nancy said. “Lincoln is not a drive-through town. If you’re coming through Lincoln, you’re coming to Lincoln. You get a flat tire here, and four people will drive by and offer to help.”

Indeed. It’s probably why Nancy and Georgia feel right at home in these hills.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 9, 2015. There are now four Idyll Banter columns remaining. After 23 and a half years, Chris will be filing his last column on Sept. 6. The paperback of his most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published this summer.)

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Let’s hope Cecil the lion was not slaughtered for naught

B9318299662Z.1_20150801191002_000_GGCBGEU0U.7-0It was well over 200 years ago now that Jeremy Bentham asked about animals, “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’” It was a rhetorical question even then. Obviously animals can suffer; obviously animals feel pain.

Last week the Internet, the news media, and Minnesotans publicly shamed a Bloomington dentist who shot a lion in Zimbabwe in July. The animal’s name was Cecil — yes, he was given a name — and he lived in Hwange National Park. The lion was lured from the safety of the park by hunters with food. The American dentist, a big game hunter, shot Cecil first with a bow and arrow. That didn’t kill him. The dentist tracked him for two days before finally finishing him off with a rifle.

Much of the world has been justifiably appalled.

I’ve been a vegetarian most of my adult life. My wife is, too. So is our daughter.

Often when it comes up in conversation that I’m a vegetarian, people ask whether I eat chicken or fish. My answer? “No. I don’t eat anything that had a parent.” I could say, “I don’t eat anything that feels pain,” because — recall that classic Bentham quote — that is the real reason. But I don’t want to sound sanctimonious or self-righteous. (Alas, I probably sound a little of both this morning. Forgive me.)

There are issues here that demand books to explore. Vegetarianism is merely one point along the lengthy spectrum of animal rights. In other words, millions of people around the world who eat meat mourned the death of Cecil the Lion. I imagine a great many Vermont deer hunters were disgusted. And yet, somehow, it seems to take more imagination for humans to identify with animal suffering and (for instance) the staggering cruelty of the meat industry than it does for us to conceive of cloning or space flight or nuclear fusion.

But make no mistake, it hurts a deer every bit as much as it hurts a human being to be shot. Likewise, a mother pig is no happier living her life in a cramped metal crate than any other mammal. Even the lobster — an animal I have christened an earwig on steroids — most likely feels pain. (In other words, that’s not just a reflex you are witnessing when you drop one into a pot of boiling water.)

I can’t say if we would behave better as people if we did not eat meat, but the world itself would most certainly be a better place. According to a 2006 study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, our demand for meat causes more greenhouse gases than either industry or transportation. The report found that meat production results in somewhere between 14 and 22 percent of the greenhouse gases we create every year: producing an eight ounce hamburger results in roughly as much greenhouse gas as driving a car ten miles.

My sense is that so many of us were outraged by Cecil’s murder (I have chosen that noun with care) because the animal had a name, was known in its community, and was a big furry lion. We like big. We like lions. We like animals we have named. Also, the fact that Cecil was murdered by a dentist is an irony that has to be factored into our thinking, since a lot of people like lions considerably more than they like dentists — though I happen to like my dentist a lot. Moreover, we hate poachers.

In other words, we were more upset by the death of this one lion than we are by the death of the 110 million pigs killed every year for food.

But as a vegetarian, I see promise in the indignation and sorrow people were experiencing. Cecil’s death was not the Disney Circle of Life ending we expect for creatures this majestic and regal. (Of course, Disney also gave us Bambi; I’m not going there.)

Nevertheless, I have a feeling that Cecil the Lion was not slaughtered for naught. Let’s see.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 2, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published this summer.)

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The Goodyear house is heading home

B9318208884Z.1_20150724191858_000_GU4BELJ8D.1-0Finding an 1880 Vermont farmhouse, fully intact, smack in the middle of the road just never gets old. Watching it on a flatbed truck ascend a 13 percent grade? Even better. Such was the nail-biting theater here in Lincoln last Wednesday afternoon. Christie Sumner’s old house was becoming Todd and Jen Goodyear’s new one, and they were moving it up the hill to where the paved road turns to dirt roughly six miles up the western side of the Lincoln Gap.

“Are you nervous?” I asked Todd as we watched the house begin its journey.

“Nah,” he said. “Just hungry.”

Only once would his heart skip a beat that afternoon. A little over two hours after the structure began its climb, it paused just beyond the steepest section of the pitch: New England Building Movers of Bridport had to trim some tree branches in the way of the roof, and the flatbed started rolling backwards down the hill. The driver stopped the slide and Monte Provencher, owner of the company, said he was never alarmed. “It was a great day,” he told me that night. “Better than better.”

The house, roughly 45 feet long and 34 feet wide, had started up the hill at precisely 1:04 p.m. and was parked on the Goodyear property at 3:57 p.m. It traveled eight-tenths of a mile in just under three hours that afternoon, and climbed somewhere in the neighborhood of 175 feet.

And yet my favorite part of this story isn’t the move: it’s what the Goodyears paid for the house. It was a freebie.

The hand-painted wooden sign went up on the Lincoln Gap road last summer: “Free house. Serious takers only.” Behind it was a handsome nineteenth-century structure, the yellow paint peeling but the edifice itself in excellent condition. Christie Sumner had lived there since 1974. Now she was building a new house on the property behind it and she wanted it gone. In a perfect world, however, she wouldn’t tear it down. Someone would want it and take it away. After all, it was a perfectly good building.

Enter Todd Goodyear, the interim pastor at the First Baptist Church of Bristol and the area director for Addison County Young Life. He liked the house and noted the sign – and how you really couldn’t beat the price. He and his wife were planning on building a new home for their family a little further up the mountain in what can only be called the Goodyear compound: already eight other families with Goodyear blood in their veins lived up there.

Then, however, his builder, Averi Smith texted him a photo of the sign with the question, “What do you think?” Todd said that sealed the deal.

“This is recycling in a big way,” Averi told me. “And even if there weren’t financial savings, who doesn’t want to save a wonderful old house?” He expects to have the structure renovated and ready for Todd’s family by the end of autumn.

Moreover, this particular old house has special meaning for Todd. A fellow named Winfred Rhodes purchased the house in 1917 and lived there with his wife Lois and their children for decades. Todd’s great-grandmother and Winfred’s father were siblings, and so Todd feels a familial link to those nineteenth-century beams and walls of horsehair plaster.

Todd’s uncle, Gilbert Goodyear, lives near where the old house was dropped off and is thrilled that “the old home has a new life with a young family.”

Todd’s father, Bruce Goodyear, lives just down the road. “I hear there’s some riffraff moving in,” he told me, a broad smile on his face, “but we can live with that.”

Indeed. It’s not often that moving day begins by moving the whole house.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on July 26, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published in May.)

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The ‘Mockingbird’ that might have hatched — but didn’t. A review of ‘Go Set a Watchman.”

IMG_5174Unless you have been living under a rock — or in self-imposed isolation with Boo Radley — you have probably watched the ballyhooed publication of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” last week.

Barnes & Noble hasn’t released the actual number it sold the day the book arrived on Tuesday, but the bookstore chain has announced that the novel now boasts its single day sales record. In other words, the father-daughter tag team of Scout and Atticus Finch thoroughly whipped even Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, and the books about that pair have sold upwards of 125 million copies around the globe.

Spurring the excitement has been the reality that Harper Lee never published another book after “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1960, and so an additional tale about Scout and Atticus felt like a miraculous little bonus. When we learned the weekend before “Go Set a Watchman” arrived that Atticus Finch might be a racist in this novel, we grew only more curious. Yes, some readers balked that a cherished cultural totem was being vilified — Good heavens, people name their sons after the lawyer who stood up against racism and injustice in a small Alabama town in the heart of the Great Depression — but for most of us, it only deepened our interest. This additional book (and note that I do not use the word “new”) was set in the 1950s, two decades after “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and there were those who feared that the story was an undiscovered sequel and Atticus had lost his bearings and aged really badly.

So, let’s set the record straight: “Go Set a Watchman” is not a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It is an earlier version of what would become the book that so many millions of us read first in middle school and then reread as adults. I understand the criticisms some people have with “Mockingbird” (Thomas Mallon famously called it “moral Ritalin.”), but even when I was reading it aloud to my daughter when she was young, I was often sniffing back tears. I love that book and I respect that book.

So I was among the millions who dove into “Go Set a Watchman” on Tuesday night, the day the novel went on sale. Should you dive in now? My short answer is, “Why not?” It is an apprentice work, its principal problem being that nothing happens — more on that in a moment. Read it as the early, rejected book that Harper Lee would retool completely into her Pulitzer Prize winner. Do not read it as a sequel or even as a book that would have been published, I imagine, if “To Kill a Mockingbird” did not exist.

Harper Lee made four principal changes after “Go Set a Watchman” was rejected by editor Tay Hohoff, who suggested that she re-imagine it from Scout’s perspective as a child. She seems to have taken Hohoff’s advice: She moved the setting from the 1950s to the 1930s. She rewrote it in the first person, in the voice of Scout Finch, a woman in her mid-30s looking back on her childhood. She transformed Atticus Finch from the sort of man who asks his daughter in “Watchman” in all seriousness, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” into a brave lawyer with a profoundly accurate moral compass. And she found the action necessary to propel a novel forward: the riveting, wrenching rape trial of African-American Tom Robinson, and his heroic defense by Atticus Finch.

Enormous changes? You bet. But not unheard of in the evolution of many novels. I have made edits to drafts of my own work every bit as dramatic. Exhibit A? “The Double Bind” was originally a first person novel. Exhibit B? There was no courtroom drama in my earliest pages of “Midwives.”

Still, there are entire passages that are almost identical in “Mockingbird” and “Watchman.” I noticed two, including the paragraph about why there are two spellings of Cunningham in Old Sarum (p. 44 in “Watchman” and p. 153 in my ancient copy of “Mockingbird” that once belonged to my mother). Keith Collins and Nikhil Sonnad share eight such paragraphs on the website quartz.com.

In “Go Set a Watchman,” 26-six-year old Jean Louise Finch returns to Maycomb, Alabama, from Manhattan to visit her ailing father, Atticus. Her brother, Jem, passed away a few years earlier. And there she witnesses her father in the courthouse with “the county’s most respectable men,” listening to racist firebrands arguing how to battle back against the NAACP and keep “snot-nosed” African-Americans — though they use a considerably less acceptable noun — out of white schools. Atticus is not especially fond of these men, but he worries that “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” And so Jean Louise is utterly devastated to learn that the father she revered as a girl, the man Atticus would become in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is imperfect. Can she still love him? Will she?

That is essentially the novel.

What else happens? There are a couple of flashbacks to Jean Louise’s embarrassing adolescence. Her uncle, usually the voice of reason, slugs her in a moment that is presented more as comic relief (he is literally trying to knock some sense into her) than as the deeply disturbing violence against women that it is. And the Civil War is deemed a struggle for state’s rights, not the fight to make men free — passages that are especially disturbing this summer in light of the massacre of nine worshippers at a historic black church in South Carolina and the appalling way some people still defended flying the Confederate battle flag.

Is this a more historically accurate and believable picture of an Alabama lawyer in the 1950s than the saintly Atticus Finch from the 1930s we all know and love? Perhaps. Is “Go Set a Watchman” a helpful primer to the politics of the South as the Civil Rights movement began to gain steam? Maybe. Those might be reasons as well to read the book.

Moreover, some of the prose is lovely and I think the first line is destined to be a classic: “Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical.”

My sense, however, is that a decade from now we will look back at “Go Set a Watchman” as a footnote, and it will be read solely to see how a great novelist revised a great novel.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on July 19, 2015. Chris Bohjalian is the author of 18 books, including his most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.”)

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