We know this much so far about Harper Lee's new book: Atticus Finch is 72 and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis; Scout is a grown woman who has a suitor most anxious to marry her.
And Scout's older brother, Jem, apparently has died.
"Go Set a Watchman" begins with Scout, otherwise known as Jean Louise Finch, returning by train to Lee's legendary Maycomb, Alabama, on one of several annual visits she makes from New York, where she is greeted by young Henry Clinton. The first chapter ran in Friday's editions of The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.
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"Go Set a Watchman," the most unexpected second novel in memory, is coming out July 14. It takes place in the 1950s, 20 years after the setting for "To Kill a Mockingbird," Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning book. U.S. publisher HarperCollins has said that pre-orders for "Go Set a Watchman" are the highest in company history and bookstores worldwide are planning events to celebrate the book's release.
Anticipation and apprehension have surrounded news of "Watchman" since it was announced in February. The surprise and ecstasy of a new work from Lee have been shadowed by suspicions the book doesn't measure up to "Mockingbird" and was approved without the 89-year-old author's full awareness.
Lee has poor hearing and vision and resides in an assisted living facility in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. But her lawyer Tonja Carter; literary agent Andrew Nurnberg; and publisher have insisted she is delighted the book is coming out. State officials, responding to at least one complaint of possible elder abuse, determined she was alert and capable of deciding on the release of "Watchman."
"To Kill a Mockingbird," published in 1960, is set in the 1930s in the fictional town of Maycomb and introduced Atticus Finch, Scout, Boo Radley and other beloved literary characters. The book was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus and has become standard reading in schools and other reading programs, with worldwide sales topping 40 million copies.
In the years that followed "Mockingbird," Lee struggled to write a second book and eventually determined that the one novel could stand on its own, apparently never considering "Watchman" a possible successor. She has not spoken to the media in decades and her absence from any promotion for "Watchman" marks a rare time that such a high-profile work is being released without the participation of a living author.
Much of Friday's excerpt touches upon the landscape and history of the Maycomb region and the banter between Clinton and Scout, who playfully resists his marriage proposals. He is known as one of Maycomb's finest men, a World War II veteran and law student who has long been close to the Finches, assists Atticus in his law practice and regards Atticus as a father figure. Clinton, in turn, is a surrogate son to Atticus. The excerpt refers to the day Jean Louise's brother and heir apparent at the law practice, presumably Jem, "dropped dead in his tracks," forcing Atticus to find another successor.
According to HarperCollins, Carter came upon the "Watchman" manuscript at a "secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'" The new book, which Harper has said did not undergo any new revisions, is set in Maycomb during a time when the civil rights movement was taking hold in Lee's 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.
"In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called 'Go Set a Watchman,'" Lee said in a statement issued by Harper in February. "It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman, and I thought it a pretty decent effort," she said. "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. ... I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years," said Lee.