In Monroeville, Ala., The Shock And Disillusion Of 'Watchman'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It has been widely reported by now that the Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's "Go Set A Watchman" is not the man you may remember from "To Kill A Mockingbird." Review after review point out this Atticus is a racist. "Go Set A Watchman" has been out since Tuesday, and Kyle Gassiott of Troy Public Radio traveled around Harper Lee's home state of Alabama to hear what people there think about the new book.
KYLE GASSIOTT, BYLINE: Tuesday morning, the ring of cars around the courthouse and square in Monroeville, the inspiration for the fictional town of Maycomb, occupied every available parking space. Many visitors had arrived in Harper Lee's hometown the evening before to buy the new book when it became available at midnight. On the second floor of the courthouse, a marathon reading of the new book started at 7 a.m. Local English teacher Barbara Turner is sitting in the judge's chair, reading a part of the book where the grownup Scout Finch, who goes by her given name, Jean Louise, learns from her aunt, Alexandra, that her father and her boyfriend are involved in the Citizens' Council, a group set up to draw voting districts with the intent of keeping blacks from participating.
BARBARA TURNER: (Reading) Your father on the board of directors and Henry, one of the staunchest members. Alexandra sighed, not that we really need one. Nothing happened here in Maycomb yet.
GASSIOTT: Turner has taught "To Kill A Mockingbird" to her eighth grade class for years. She says "Go Set A Watchman" is very different.
TURNER: It was shocking. I didn't expect the book to come back and show that he was - could I say bigot? And I was shocked at how the story turned around.
WAYNE FLYNT: Because the innocence of little Scout with this loving father is now the anger of this disillusioned daughter, alienated from her father, alienated from her town.
GASSIOTT: Wayne Flynt is a history professor at Auburn University and a personal friend of Harper Lee. He says that while the change in Atticus may be upsetting, it rings true to him and others whose fathers lived and worked in the South of the 1950s.
FLYNT: My dad lived in Anniston, Ala. where he was selling Swift meat. And my dad had to live in that world. And when he went out to sell meat, there were the racial stories and the jokes and the N-word. Well, that was his world.
GASSIOTT: Three hours away and two days later in the eastern Alabama city of Opelika, a book club has been on a marathon of its own, furiously finishing "Go Set A Watchman" within two days of its release and eager to discuss it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Another agenda going on...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Absolutely.
LEE SHORMA: But when I mention to people that...
GASSIOTT: Lee Shorma says the first 70 pages or so were a little slow.
SHORMA: And then you get into her seeing Atticus and Hank at the Citizens' Council, and the book just exploded. And from that point on, literally, I went straight through.
GASSIOTT: Everyone in the group had read "To Kill A Mockingbird" at least once, and many had reread it in anticipation of "Watchman." Katie Lamar Jackson says she wasn't sure she wanted to read the new book after seeing some of the reviews. She says she wound up knowing a little better who Atticus was.
KATIE LAMAR JACKSON: He has thoughts, and he has ideas that are racist. And it's tough to look at him that way in this book and realize that he's not perfect because it's like any daddy. We've all looked up to this father figure. And then suddenly, you find out that he has feet of clay.
GASSIOTT: Throughout the night, the group keeps returning to the alienation that Jean Louise feels when she returns home to Alabama from New York, not being able to find her place and not being able to connect again with her father. But book club member Phillip Preston says "Watchman" definitely reads as authentic.
PHILLIP PRESTON: I mean, it is real as real. We all know these people, and we've all heard these things. You know, within family, friends, acquaintances, there's nothing new in here.
GASSIOTT: "Go Set A Watchman" was the first book Harper Lee submitted to a publisher. She and her editor reworked it substantially to focus on Scout's childhood for "To Kill A Mockingbird," which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. But Wayne Flynt says the characterizations in "Watchman" might just be truer to real life and Lee's personal experiences.
FLYNT: Our worlds are not perfect worlds. And we'll be much more comfortable with "Go Set A Watchman" than we were in the pretend righteousness in "To Kill A Mockingbird."
GASSIOTT: Flynt says that only when we understand that this was Harper Lee's original intention can we truly go home the way that Scout does in "Go Set A Watchman." For NPR News, I'm Kyle Gassiott in Montgomery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.