MONROEVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Author Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville buzzed with excitement over the Tuesday release of her novel “Go Set a Watchman.” The book is the sequel to Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The town is the model for Maycomb, the setting of both books. A full day of celebrations is planned, including readings, tours and a mint julep cocktail hour outside the old courthouse.
But amid the excitement, there also was trepidation and disbelief that character Atticus Finch, the courtly model of integrity who defended a wrongly accused black man in the 1930s in “Mockingbird,” is portrayed as a racist 20 years later in “Watchman.”
Here are some scenes from Monroeville:
Remembering the past
For some, “Watchman” is a poignant but painful reminder of the segregation and prejudice that existed in Monroeville in the 1950s.
Mary Tucker says she remembered going into a Monroeville dress shop and being told she could only try the dress on over her clothes, not next to her skin.
“We couldn’t sit downstairs at the movies, so of course we didn’t go,” she says.
Tucker says an Atticus Finch who attends White Citizens’ Council meetings and defends segregation would have been an accurate depiction of how many prominent Monroeville men felt at the time.
By Tuesday morning, Alice Brantley had already read the first third of “Watchman” — written before “Mockingbird,” though it takes place two decades later.
“It doesn’t read like a first draft,” she says “But it doesn’t read like a final version either.”
She says she made the eight-hour drive from Denton, Georgia, for all the weekend’s activities in Monroeville.
Reading for a crowd
Shortly after sunrise, the doors of the Old Courthouse Museum opened and a bell tolled to mark the start of a marathon reading of “Watchman.”
Among those signing up was 49-year-old Candy Smith. She says she got there early after a nearly two-hour trip from Montgomery and was asked to be the first speaker in a reading expected to last eight hours.
“I love ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ I didn’t know if I’d get a chance to read, but I’m excited,” Smith says.
The museum is dedicated to telling a story of Lee and childhood friend Truman Capote. The reading is in the old courtroom where Lee’s father practiced law. The “Mockingbird” movie’s courtroom is an almost identical replica of the one in Monroeville.
Where is Lee?
Lee, also known as Nelle, is expected to spend Tuesday at the assisted-living facility where she lives in Monroeville. Before the February announcement of the discovery and release of “Watchman,” 89-year-old Lee, who is mostly deaf and blind, had long said she wouldn’t publish another novel.
Concerns linger in Monroeville over whether the publication is something Lee truly wanted.
“I don’t think that Nelle, if she were really able to think as she was able to years ago, if she would have approved the book,” says Tucker, a former Old Courthouse Museum board member. Tucker says she used to visit with Lee at the assisted-living facility.
Lee fan Brantley says she had initial concerns, but they were alleviated after reading interviews with Lee’s friends.
Still a hero?
The new novel traces Scout Finch’s return home to Maycomb in the 1950s. She finds that her father, Atticus, has changed. News of his development came out in reviews ahead of the “Watchman” release.
“I’m nervous. I’m reserving opinion, but I’m ready to be mad. He’s the epitome of the moral compass,” says Cher Caldwell, a 43-year-old English teacher from Kentucky.
May says she’s tried to stay away from spoilers but is concerned about a different Atticus.
“Atticus has been a hero-type person through our lives here in Monroe County and the whole world actually. It would be pretty disappointing,” May says. “But at the same time, you have to kind of remind yourself he was human at the time he was raised.”
The first copies
Before the book’s midnight release, more than 200 people waited in humid summer weather for sales to begin at Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe.
An Atticus Finch impersonator, with glasses and a briefcase, entertained the crowd, a few of whom dressed as characters from the book.
Judy May and her sister Julia Stroud drove back to their hometown of Monroeville and snatched up the store’s first two copies of “Watchman.”
“I’m so excited, I’m shaking,” 51-year-old May said as she walked outside with her hardback treasure.
The shop ordered more than 10,000 copies — in a town with fewer than 6,300 people.