Monday, July 20, 2015

Harper Lee's Hometown Celebrates Go Set a Watchman

Old Courthouse, Monroeville 
Monroeville (Alabama) today is home to approximately 6,500 people and the surrounding county adds maybe another 23,000 souls to the area population.  It is a relatively sleepy little town these days and I can only imagine what it must have been like when Harper Lee and Truman Capote were spending their summers together there.  Just the fact that two writers of such stature could come from such a small place - much less that they were friends from childhood - is mind-boggling.  

But they did.  And the world celebrated one of them again as the clock struck twelve midnight on the evening of May 13.  That hour marked the official release of what is already being called by some "the biggest book of the decade," Harper Lee's new novel Go Set a Watchman.  And in Monroeville, along with a few hundred locals, the rest of the world was watching.  Within a few minutes of my arrival at the old county courthouse (sometimes called Atticus's courthouse), I had already spoken to representatives from CNN, the AP, and people from the Netherlands and England about what was planned for the evening and where it was all going to happen.  

Ol' Curiosities and Bookshoppe
Later in the evening when I arrived at Ol' Curiosities and Bookshoppe, a small crowd had already gathered in front of the little bookstore to await delivery of the books that most everyone around me had pre-ordered weeks earlier.   Remember what I said about the number of people living in and around Monroeville: 30,000 people in all of Monroe County, max.  Well, this little bookstore managed to pre-sell 7,499 of the 7,500 copies of the book it received for sale.  And, although I had decided to wait in line to purchase a copy, I found out very quickly that they were all gone - resulting in total gross sales (based on the price I paid for a copy at the old courthouse the next morning) of $228,869.48.  That is astounding.  (I don't know for certain whether or not those who pre-ordered were given a discounted price, so I've used the $30.52 price I paid for my own copy, including sales tax of 9%.)

Monroeville Library
The big events actually took place a few hours later on the morning of May 14th.  The town library provided volunteer guides to accompany visitors on walking tours of the area surrounding the old courthouse and the courthouse and its museum displays were open for viewing.  Inside the courtroom (a replica of which was used in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird) a marathon reading of Go Set a Watchman was taking place where volunteer readers sat on the judge's chair and read to those seated in the courtroom.
Outside Old Courthouse
 By the time I made it upstairs to the courtroom, a British-accented reader was just finishing up "Part 1" of the novel (ending on page 39 of this 278 page book).  I listened as she began "Part II," took a few pictures and moved on to the library to join about 25 others for one of the walking tours.

Tribute to Atticus Finch, the Lawyer
Thankfully, bottles of water were provided at the beginning of the walk because the temperature was well up into the nineties as we began.  Along the way, we saw things like the monument to the image of Atticus Finch, the sculpture representing the three children of To Kill a Mockingbird, the office building in which Harper Lee's sister practiced law for decades, and we met two young actors from the stage play version of Mockingbird that the city of Monroeville presents every year.  

Boo's Tree
All in all, my decision to drive from Houston to Monroeville was a good one and I'm happy to have been there.  The people of Monroeville are open and friendly and they were happy to talk about their city's most famous resident - all the while noticeably trying not to infringe on Miss Lee's privacy.  They shared stories about growing up with her and around her legacy and, for the most part, they seem proud of her and her little friend Truman.  But, of course, there are
always one or two skeptics, such as the old farmer I met in McDonald's (breakfast opportunities are limited in Monroeville) who said all that Harper Lee did "was write about life in the old days."  According to him, "most anyone could have done it; she was just writing about the way things were back then."

Well...if you say so, man.

Post #2,511


  1. Thanks for sharing what it was like to be there on publication day!

    1. It was one of those bookish "experiences" I always hope to find, Stefanie. The only thing akin to it that I've done in the last few years was the big "Last Book Sale" in Larry McMurtry's hometown when he decided to permanently shut down two of the three bookstores there. They don't come along to often.