Bookshops in many parts of the world opened Tuesday to lines of shoppers waiting to purchase one particular book: Harper Lee’s «Go Set a Watchman.»
Watchman is the much ballyhooed and long awaited second book from Lee, who is famous for having written the classic, «To Kill a Mockingbird» first published in 1960 – and nothing since.
One of the best beloved books in American literature, «To Kill a Mockingbird» is the story of courtly white lawyer Atticus Finch, who defends a black man wrongfully accused of rape. While Mockingbird deals with the serious issues of rape and racial inequality, it is also a gentle and bittersweet book, told from the point of view of Finch’s 6-year-old daughter, Scout.
Harper Lee based the setting and characters on observations of her family and neighbors, including the famous writer Truman Capote, who also grew up in her hometown. The plot was based on an event that occurred there in 1936, when she was 10 years old.
Lee, who is 89 now, kept a low profile in the eye of the storm created by her book and the Oscar-winning film that followed in 1962. She stayed out of the public eye and she did not publish again – until now.
Mockingbird – All Grown Up
“Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires.”
So begins «Go Set a Watchman.» In it, Scout is grown up and she is returning home from New York 20 years later to visit her father – who is depicted as a bigot. It is a darker, adult view and has been labeled by critics as “distressing” and “disturbing.”
But Watchman also provides insight into the creation of Mockingbird. It was written before its famous cousin. After reading it, Harper Lee’s agent sent her back to her desk with instructions to rewrite the story from the young Scout’s point of view.
For literary detectives, Watchman will be a trove of clues into the making of the classic. The books share characters, setting and even some lines.
In Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, 7,000 copies of «Go Set a Watchman» were delivered to the Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe just in advance of the book’s midnight release. The town’s population is fewer than 6,500.
But Monroeville has become much more than just a small town in Alabama since the publication of «To Kill a Mockingbird.» It is the model for Maycomb, the setting of both books – and has been a literary tourist destination for decades.
On Monday evening, several hundred people lined up at the book shop just off the main town square to get their copies of the book when the shop opened at midnight to sell them. First to emerge with her copy was beaming Julia Stroud, who had traveled back to her hometown to buy the book.
Afterwards, a full day of celebrations began while Harper Lee, the woman at the center of them, spent a quiet day in the nursing home where she now lives.