‘Go Set a Watchman’ Flies Off Bookstore Shelves at Torrid Pace

15 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Flawed ‘Go Set a Watchman’ shows young Harper Lee finding her way as a writer.

ALISO VIEJO — The truest fans arrived just after the sun, some as early as 6:30 a.m. for the release of the new Harper Lee novel “Go Set a Watchman.” Barnes & Noble stores opened at 7 a.m., two hours earlier than normal for the release. FOR more than half a century “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been revered as a literary classic, the story of Scout and Jem Finch, a young sister and brother (and their naughty friend, Dill Harris, based on Truman Capote) who are all trying to make sense of the bewildering, bigoted American South in the 1930s.

— Author Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville buzzed with excitement over the Tuesday release of her novel “Go Set a Watchman,” the sequel to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The town is the model for Maycomb, the setting of both books. Wrappe said she turned up at the stroke of midnight at the Book Culture store on the Upper West Side, which stayed open overnight to start peddling the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee. “Atticus is just one of these treasured American father figures,’’ said Wrappe, referring to the main character in “Mockingbird,’’ which is set in the segregationist South. “I just could not wait, I had to get it,’’ said Mekdad Muthana, a 25-year-old literature student who was the first in line for a copy of the book, getting to the store at 6:30 a.m. The novel sold 40m copies, won a Pulitzer prize and was made into a much-loved film, starring Gregory Peck as the siblings’ father, Atticus Finch, a heroic white lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.

It’s a must-read, a book I’ve always wanted every kid to read.” She is mostly deaf and blind, and there were concerns before “Watchman’’ was published that she was in no state to give her consent to its release after the work was discovered among her belongings. I have to read it.” Bob Cassman, 65, of Aliso Viejo, said only his love for Mockingbird, which he was required to read in elementary school, could bring him out this early. Tourists frantically waved hand-held paper fans, emblazoned with the image of the “Watchman” book jacket as they tried to cool themselves in 98 degree heat. “She’s the town’s legacy of course. Cassman is a writer, and he’s been working on a movie script called “The Dark Side,” although it’s not about the Mockingbird characters. “She’s one of the great writers,” Westerband said. “’To Kill a Mockingbird’ was iconic for my generation. The manuscript was “lost” among Lee’s papers for 60 years and found by the lawyer, who now restricts access to the 89-year-old, partially blind and deaf Lee and does all of her public talking for her.

Lee, also known as Nelle, is expected to spend the day as she usually does at the 15-person assisted-living facility where she is closely guarded and only a short list of pre-approved visitors are allowed to see her. The novel, which hit bookstores Tuesday, has shocked early readers with its heretical portrayal of Atticus Finch, the beloved father, sage and moral heart of “Mockingbird,” who is now revealed to be a KKK-joining segregationist and NAACP-hating racist who takes his counsel from a pamphlet titled “The Black Plague.” Lost in the thick smoke arising from that revelation is a far more depressing one: The writing is downright clunky, with a few exceptions in the flashbacks to childhood that caught the interest of Lee’s original editor. Instead of a child, Scout is a 26-year-old woman who works in New York and has gone home on holiday, much as Ms Lee herself might have done at the time.

Mary Tucker, who is black, said 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. Tay Hohoff, her legendary editor, read the draft in 1957 and wisely advised the fledgling author to rewrite the book, fleshing out the scenes of Scout’s childhood. The father-daughter conflict that drives the novel devolves, in the final chapters, into obscure literary references and long, preachy monologues about states’ rights. Early reactions to the new release have focused on the shocking disclosure that Atticus Finch, far from being a hero, is an uneasy segregationist who once attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting.

In short, “Watchman” and “Mockingbird” together provide a fine example of “(unprintable word) first drafts,” the memorable term Anne Lamott coined in “Bird by Bird,” her terrific guide for writers. “Watchman” takes place in the mid-1950s, 20 years after the events of “Mockingbird.” Scout Finch, now 26 and known as Jean Louise, has moved to New York City to escape Maycomb and pursue her dream of becoming a writer. By Tuesday morning, Alice Brantley had already read the first third of “Watchman,” which was written before “Mockingbird,” even though it takes place two decades later. As one fan tweeted, “It’s like hearing that Santa Claus beat his deer.” The book’s evolution from “Watchman” into “Mockingbird” in less than three years is remarkable. The “Mockingbird” movie’s courtroom is an almost identical replica of the one in Monroeville. “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,” said Mary Tucker, a former Old Courthouse Museum board member who said she used to visit with Lee at the assisted-living facility.

Major characters from “Mockingbird” are nowhere to be found, including Scout’s brother Jem; their childhood friend Dill (a doppleganger of Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote); and the mysterious and damaged Boo Radley. Hank wants her to move home to Maycomb and marry him, and though she knows she doesn’t love him like that, Jean Louise gives the idea some serious thought.

The scene throws her – and the novel – into a crisis of such force that she stumbles outside, blinded by tears, and throws up. “Watchman” is not so bad that a reader will be inspired to do the same. In fact, the characters are more complicated and flawed, and thus more interesting, than they became in “Mockingbird,” and the world Lee shows us has an uncanny connection and relevance to the world we inhabit today.

He’s the epitome of the moral compass,” said Cher Caldwell, a 43-year-old English teacher from Kentucky. “Atticus has been a hero-type person through our lives here in Monroe County and the whole world actually. Just a week ago, South Carolina enraged many Southerners and conservatives when it took down the Confederate flag that had been flying on its statehouse grounds, an action taken in response to a white supremacist murdering worshippers in an historic black church. And a recent Supreme Court ruling has renewed angry complaints about judicial activism and calls for recognition of states’ rights. “Watchman” also has several moments of grace and profound emotion beyond the childhood flashbacks. The most devastating and beautifully evoked of these moments comes when Jean Louise goes to the Negro Quarter (as it’s called in the book) to visit her old housekeeper and surrogate mother, Calpurnia. “Calpurnia lifted her hands and brought them down softly on the arms of the rocker.

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