IN THE small American town author Harper Lee made famous with To Kill A Mockingbird, the classic novel of the Deep South can be seen and felt everywhere.
Signs in Monroeville, Alabama, are decorated with mockingbirds. The old courthouse, a model made for the film adaptation, is now a museum which sells souvenirs including coffee cups, aprons and Christmas decorations. There is even a statue in the town square depicting characters from the fictional version of the town Lee called “Maycomb, Alabama”.
So when it was announced on Tuesday that Lee had written a second novel to be released this summer, Monroeville residents and visitors alike were pleased at the prospect.
The new book, Go Set a Watchman, was written in the 1950s before To Kill A Mockingbird, but has been described as a sequel to the best-seller centred on small-town lawyer Atticus Finch, his children Scout and Jem, and racial injustice in the segregated South. It is set for release on 14 July.
Located halfway between Montgomery and Mobile, Monroeville calls itself the “Literary Capital of Alabama” – besides Lee, the city was home to novelist Truman Capote and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Cynthia Tucker.
That literary heritage has been helping to draw tourists to the area after the blow of the town losing a huge textile mill and outlet 20 years ago.
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The non-profit Monroe County Heritage Museum opens the old courthouse to visitors and features a display about Lee’s life in her own words. Fans can sit in the courtroom balcony depicted in the Academy Award-winning screen version of the book, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus.
Area residents put on a play based on the book each spring, holding the first act of performances on the courthouse lawn, then taking patrons inside for the climactic courtroom scenes. While visitors to the town are few right now, they always return once winter is over.
“It will be busy again during the play,” said Jillian Schultz, 28, who owns a business in the town square, and admitted being a little perplexed about the appearance of a sequel 55 years after the original was first published. “I was really surprised. You know there’s a lot of controversy about whether Harper Lee actually wrote the [first) book. There’s been so many years in between, and you have to wonder, ‘How did somebody forget about a book?”’
Visitors are unlikely to see the 88-year-old Lee, who lived in New York for years but now resides in an assisted living centre not far from where she grew up. A long-time friend said she is deaf, blind and in poor health, spending much of her time in a wheelchair. She was last seen publicly in November at the funeral of her older sister, Alice Lee, who long represented her.
Some Mockingbird fans encountered in Monroeville said they were excited by news of a new book. Ginger Brookover, from West Virginia, said: “I’m just absolutely shaking.”
Judy Turberville, from nearby Frisco City, added: “I bet it’s going to be great. The first one was.”
Sales of To Kill A Mockingbird have topped 40 million copies since its release in July 1960. Although occasionally banned because of its language and racial themes, the book has become a standard text for schools.
Lee’s publisher Jonathan Burnham acknowledged he has had no direct conversations about the book with her, but had communicated with her lawyer, Tonja Carter, and literary agent Andrew Nurnburg.
He said Carter came upon the manuscript at a “secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird”.