Monroeville, Ala. — In the small Alabama town author Harper Lee made famous with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the Southern classic novel can be seen and felt everywhere.
Signs in Monroeville are decorated with mockingbirds. The old courthouse, a model for the movie version of the book, is now a museum that sells souvenirs including coffee cups, aprons and Christmas ornaments. A statue in the town square and a mural decorating the side of a building depict characters who inhabited a fictional version of the town Lee called “Maycomb, Alabama.”
So when it was announced Tuesday that Lee had written a second novel to be released this summer, Monroeville residents and visitors alike were pleased and excited — but they were also perplexed.
The first book centered on small-town attorney Atticus Finch, his children Scout and Jem, and racial injustice in the Jim Crow South. The new book, “Go Set a Watchman,” is described as a sequel that Lee actually wrote in the 1950s before “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“I was really surprised,” said Jillian Schultz, 28, who owns a business in the town square. “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?’”
Located halfway between Montgomery and Mobile, Monroeville calls itself the “Literary Capital of Alabama,” a designation bestowed by the state Legislature in the late 1990s. Besides Lee, the city was home to novelist Truman Capote and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorialist Cynthia Tucker.
For years, the town of 6,300 was known as the home of a huge Vanity Fair mill and outlet, but the factory shut down nearly 20 years ago. That left Monroeville with “Mockingbird” and its literary heritage to attract visitors off the nearest highway, Interstate 65, about 25 miles away.
The nonprofit 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.
Area residents put on a play based on the book each spring, holding the first act of sold-out performances on the courthouse lawn, then taking patrons inside for the climactic courtroom scenes. While visitors are few in shops right now, they’ll return once winter is over.
“It will be busy again during the play,” Schultz said.
Visitors likely won’t see the 88-year-old Lee, who lived in New York for years but now resides in an assisted living center not far from where she grew up. A longtime 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 the author and was known for being protective of her.
Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham acknowledged Tuesday that the publisher has had no direct conversations about the new book with Harper Lee, but communicated through her Monroeville attorney, Tonja Carter, and literary agent Andrew Nurnburg.
The publisher says Carter came upon the manuscript at a “secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”
Burnham said during a telephone interview that he had known both Carter and Nurnburg for years and was “completely confident” Lee was fully involved in the decision to release the book.
“We’ve had a great deal of communication with Andrew and Tonja,” said Burnham, adding that Nurnburg had met with her recently and found her “feisty and in very fine spirits.”
Some “Mockingbird” fans encountered in Monroeville on Tuesday said they are excited by the news of a new book.
“I bet it’s going to be great. The first one was,” said Judy Turberville, of nearby Frisco City. Turberville said she can’t wait to read “Go Set a Watchman,” which publisher Harper said will be released July 14.
Ginger Brookover, who lives in West Virginia, is among the tourists who have been lured to Monroeville by “Mockingbird.” In the middle of her second trip to town when the publisher announced Lee’s new novel, Brookover got goose bumps.
“I’m just absolutely shaking,” she said.
Worldwide sales of “To Kill A Mockingbird” have topped 40 million copies since its release in July 1960. Although occasionally banned over the years because of its language and racial themes, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has become a standard for reading clubs and middle and high schools.
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