Harper Lee 'Mockingbird' sequel greeted with joy – and skepticism

Harper Lee's second novel 'Go Set a Watchman' was discovered by her attorney. The new novel – a sequel to 'To Kill a Mockingbird' – is due to be published July 14, 2015.  

(AP Photo, File)
This March 14, 1963 file photo shows Harper Lee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "To kill a Mockingbird." Publisher Harper announced Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015, that "Go Set a Watchman," a novel Lee completed in the 1950s and put aside, will be released July 14. It will be her second published book.

Forget the "Mockingjay."  The announcement that Harper Lee is releasing the sequel to her masterwork, "To Kill a Mockingbird," has the publishing world catching fire with excitement – and a whiff of controversy. 

"In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called 'Go Set a Watchman,'" Ms. Lee said in a statement issued by her publisher. "It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman, and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout's childhood, persuaded me to write a novel (what became 'To Kill a Mockingbird') from the point of view of the young Scout.

Along with real enthusiasm and excitement from the millions of admirers of Lee's first novel, there's some skepticism. 

A completed novel? Just three months after her sister, Alice, who was the legal eagle in the family, passes on, a completed novel suddenly surfaces?

The statement released by Harper, her publisher, quoted Lee as saying:

I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn't realized it (the original book) had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years."

For fans who have followed the legal battles of recent years, there's skepticism that Lee is really behind this novel's release, which is due to be published on July 14, 2015. A fully-hatched novel is "discovered" and not a collection of notes?

Doubts about the credibility of Harper Lee's endorsement of the release of this book – after long insisting she would never publish another novel – are likely shaped by last year's controversy over a biography, titled "Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee"  published in July 2014. 

The book's author, Marja Mills, first got to know Lee and her older sister Alice in 2001 as a journalist for The Chicago Tribune. In 2004, with the sisters' blessing (according to the author and her publisher), Mills moved in to the house next door to the sisters in Monroeville, Ala. She met with each sister on many occasions and never hid the fact that she was taking notes and writing a book. 

“My book chronicles what really was the last chapter of life as they knew it,” Ms. Mills says in a phone interview. “I rented the house next door to theirs with their blessing. They offered to serve as character references. I was there from fall 2004 to the spring of 2006. And unfortunately, Nelle Harper [Lee] suffered a serious stroke the following year in 2007 and has not been able to live at home since then.”

In reference to how her relationship with Lee unraveled thereafter, Mills says, “The, um, picture of how her affairs are handled is considerably different from when I lived next door. Alice, for many years, was handling many of her sister’s affairs. Nelle Harper called her sister ‘Atticus in a skirt.’ And that tells you about what kind of an attorney she was.”

Upon publication of Mills’s book in July 2014, Lee released a letter denying she co-operated with Mills on the biography published by Penguin Press.

Tonja Carter, an attorney who worked with Alice Lee in the Lee law firm, and who now appears to speak for Harper Lee, was instrumental in the penning and distribution of that denial letter, according to letters written by Alice Lee.

According to the release on Lee’s new work, Ms. Carter is credited with finding the "Go Set a Watchman" manuscript.

Alice Lee  wrote letters which supported Mills’s version of the story. In one of several letters supplied to The Christian Science Monitor by Mills's agent at Penguin, one dated May 12, 2011 details how the signed Harper Lee letter disavowing cooperation with Mills’s biography was written by “Tonja at BBL & Carter’s” law firm and taken to Harper Lee at a convalescent facility to sign. Alice Lee wrote of her sister:

Poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by any one in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.

When asked if she believed the new work is something Lee intended to have published as a novel or is, perhaps, one of the many drafts and revisions Lee rejected or set aside during the years she was writing "To Kill a Mocking Bird," Mills responds: “I can’t speak to that. Well, Nelle Harper and I both talked about the revisions and years that went into revising and reshaping what Nelle was writing into what became 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. So, I think it’s likely that there certainly were earlier, ah, chapters she had written or just earlier pages and versions done well before 'To Kill a Mocking Bird' became 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.”

Mills adds that she did not mean to imply that the new book might not be a separate novel. “She certainly wrote a lot before 'To Kill a Mockingbird' was ever published so, I, I, I don’t know,” Mills says. “I have some concerns about the timing of it.”

"To Kill A Mockingbird," published in 1960, chronicles the story of lawyer Atticus Finch and his children Jem and Scout and their life in the mythical town of Maycomb, Ala., during the Great Depression.

Lee won a Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1961. The book was made into an Academy Award-winning 1962 film starring Gregory Peck.

The Associated Press reports that the new book is set in Lee's famed Maycomb, Ala., during the mid-1950s, 20 years after "To Kill a Mockingbird" and roughly contemporaneous with the time that Lee was writing the story. The civil rights movement was taking hold in her home state. The Supreme Court had ruled unanimously in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional, and the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 led to the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott.

"Scout (Jean Louise Finch) has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father, Atticus," the publisher's announcement reads. "She is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father's attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood."

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