Arts & Culture

A Busy Day in Monroeville

How the Alabama town is celebrating Go Set a Watchman

Monroeville, Alabama, population 6,300 and the hometown of Nelle Harper Lee, is today basking in one of literature’s biggest bombshells—the release of Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s first novel in 55 years.

A book release at midnight at Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe, just off the square, attracted some 400 fans, complete with an Atticus Finch impersonator. Historic tours sent tourists around downtown, at the center of which lies the Old Monroe County Courthouse, now a museum, enveloped in Knockout roses and scarlet crepe myrtles. Beginning at 7 a.m., volunteers took turns reading from Watchman inside the courthouse, as readers in church pews followed along, running their fingers across crisp pages.

At 9:30 a.m. a line snaked out of the doors of Ol’ Curiosities. Co-owner Spencer Madrie said he ordered 27,000 copies of Watchman for his store. By 10 a.m., he’d sold 9,000 of them.

Already the book has elicited strong opinions, based on early reviews that reveal a very different Atticus Finch from the beloved figure in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the controversy that surrounded its discovery and release. But until today, very few had actually read it. Inside the bookshop, Kelly Fayard, of nearby Atmore, wasn’t sure if she wanted to. “I’m ambivalent about whether or not I’m going to buy the book,” Fayard said. “It seems like maybe she didn’t want it to come out.”

Joe McKissick, the Monroe County Commissioner, bought ten copies of Watchman. He lived next to Lee for years and ate breakfast with her regularly. She’s far from a recluse, he added, and he imagines she is quite pleased today at the assisted living center on the edge of town where she now lives.

He clutched his pile of books.

“We’re happy for her,” he said.

In light of the difficult questions about race that have recently enveloped the country, Madrie said the timing of Watchman is perfect, not unlike 1960, when Mockingbird was released. “My take of it is just as To Kill a Mockingbird sparked discussion in its time, so will this book,” he said. “So it’s good.”