Long Islanders may recall fondly shopping for the cherished novel To Kill a Mockingbird, but it’s Harper Lee’s newly released second novel, Go Set a Watchman, that is rocking the bookstores these days. Whether it makes it into the classroom is another story.
A random survey of local booksellers taken earlier this week on Long Island showed that the book was sold out and orders for new copies were pouring in.
“There’s been quite a great deal of interest,” said a sales representative at the Book Revue in Huntington. “All of our books have been reserved for the most part.”
Barnes and Nobles reports that it has already set a one-day sales record for adult fiction by number of units sold. The national chain bookstore expects Watchman to be the most bought-title of the year.
“People have been excited to see what the controversy’s all about,” said worker Brenda Vasiento at the Dolphin Bookshop in Port Washington.
Lee, now 89 and living in Alabama where she grew up, wrote Go Set a Watchman as a first draft long before she created To Kill a Mockingbird, which ultimately was published in 1960. When Lee turned in that initial draft to her editor, she was asked to rewrite it substantially and focus on the childhood of the lead character, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. She did, and the result became a Pulitizer Prize-winning classic taught in countless schools.
The new novel takes place in the 1950s, 20 years after the setting of the original. The figures in this fiction are the polar opposite of the established characters known and loved amid the bigotry in Maycomb County, her imaginary district in southern Alabama.
Take, for instance, heroic Atticus Finch, who believed in upholding fairness and justice. Originally depicted in Mockingbird as the noble attorney protecting a black man named Tom Robinson, unfairly accused of rape, Watchman starkly portrays Finch as a hateful racist.
“We are all excited to read this sequel to Mockingbird, even though we have mixed feelings about taking old Atticus off of his pedestal,” said Beth Seigel, a librarian at the Bryant Library in Roslyn.
“He is not a fairy tale hero but a man who is decent in some ways and not in many others,” mused Judith Bamel, an English professor at Hofstra University. “It seems to me that the portrait of Atticus Finch can only be deepened by the realism and complexity these new scenes add.”
Similarly, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is no longer of the same ilk. Once known for her tom-boyish features, Scout—known here as Jean Louise—has transformed herself into a “reasonable facsimile of a human being.” Now all grown up, she lives in New York and harbors an ardent love for “lifelong friend” Henry Clinton, a World War II veteran and lawyer.
Scout’s big brother from Mockingbird, Jeremy “Jem” Atticus Finch is gone from Watchman. The treasured character died from a cerebral hemorrhage before reaching adulthood.
Mockingbird was written in Scout’s first person voice. Now in third person narrative, Watchman flows from Jean Louise’s much older perspective.
While Watchman is no revered Mockingbird, having the chance to see Lee’s initial thought process certainly calls for attention. It is only her second novel ever to be published.
Some aren’t as thrilled as others by its release.
“I can’t imagine a prospect more dull than reading that new Harper Lee novel,” says a tweet from Donald McCarthy, an English teacher at SUNY Old Westbury.
The question remains if Watchman will be mixed into schools’ curricula, as Mockingbird has graced countless reading lists for decades.
“We expect this to be a very popular book group choice in the coming year,” said Roslyn librarian Michele Lipson, “and look forward to reading it and comparing, questioning, and discussing this book with readers in our community.”