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The mystery around Harper Lee's new old novel

'Go Set a Watchman' breaks records as controversy swirls around its 'discovery.'

Rob Carr/AP/File
In this 2007 file photo, "To Kill A Mockingbird" author Harper Lee smiles during a ceremony honoring the four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor, at the state Capitol in Montgomery, Ala.

Harper Lee’s book “To Kill a Mockingbird” just may be the greatest one-hit wonder ever, in any medium, in any genre.

So the knowledge that there exists another story of Scout and Atticus Finch, a novel titled “Go Set a Watchman,” and that it has supposedly existed in some bank vault for more than 50 years, is both thrilling and ... strange? 

Ms. Lee, reclusive for most of her 89 years, never published another novel after her Pulitzer Prize-winning effort in 1960. And the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the “Watchman” manuscript raise many questions about the sudden and unexpected find.

Last fall, Lee’s older sister Alice, a lawyer who managed her sibling’s affairs, died. She had been the enigmatic author’s closest companion, even after Harper moved into an assisted living facility following a stroke in 2007. Family friend and attorney Tonja Carter has been handling the Lee estate – and quite aggressively, too – over the past few years. She sued a museum in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala., for selling “Mockingbird” trinkets and trying to profit from the book without offering compensation. The case was settled in June 2014.

Not long thereafter, Ms. Carter was thumbing through files and found a manuscript she assumed was a version of “Mockingbird.” But in these pages, Scout was an adult, Atticus was much older, and the story was set in Alabama during the racial unrest of the 1950s rather than the Depression of the 1930s. “I was so stunned,” Carter told The New York Times.

In a statement released by her publisher, Lee explained why “Watchman,” written before “Mockingbird,” was never published. “In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called ‘Go Set a Watchman.’ 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 from the point of view of the young Scout.”

“I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,” she continued. “I hadn’t realized it 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.”

At first, some were skeptical that Lee, under care, was really aware of what was happening, since the author had long dismissed calls to write another novel. The controversy grew, and the Alabama Department of Human Resources investigated suspicions of elder abuse. But in April, the agency decided such suspicions were unfounded.

“I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to ‘Watchman,’ ” Lee said earlier this year in a statement through Carter.

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