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In Harper Lee's Return, First Chapter Swings From Homecoming To Heartbreak

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee.
Courtesy of HarperCollins
Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee.

"Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical."

So begins Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee's second published novel — more than half a century after the first — and after such a long silence, it seemed only fitting to let Lee herself start the conversation. The novel, something of an accidental sequel for To Kill a Mockingbird (more on that later), is set to publish on Tuesday. But you can get a start on it today: The opening chapter has just hit the Internet here and here.

The "she" in the dining car of that opening line is a young woman now known as Jean Louise Finch, but whom you probably know better as Scout. Two decades after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, she's headed home from New York, pitched between two worlds on her way to an Alabama she only sometimes sees these days. Awaiting her at the other end of her journey is her father, Atticus, stalwart as ever at 72, but hobbled by arthritis and the ailments of age.


Not that he'd raise a word about it willingly.

"If you asked him how he was feeling he would tell you," Jean Louise reflects, "but he never complained."

Or, as Atticus himself says: "The only remedy for this is not to let it beat you."

Yet the bulk of this opener rests not with Atticus, the attorney hero of Mockingbird, but with Jean Louise, hopscotching from one of her memories to the next. The history of Maycomb County, the goings-on of Cousin Joshua, the latest in her unsteady relationship with suitor Henry Clinton. It all reads like someone taking a dear family friend around the old stomping grounds. Perhaps that's the seed of the chapter's buoying joy, which with each mile marker only seems to grow.

And judging from the Web's collective reaction Friday (something along the lines of a toddler's squeal), Lee's readers shared her lead character's delight. Tweets swings somewhere between shell shock and, well, "Don't bother, I'm reading" — in whatever language you happen to speak.


Still, just days away from the book's release, questions continue to linger around the manuscript. This ostensible sequel was actually written in the 1950s, years before To Kill a Mockingbird was published, and it stayed shelved for decades before it was dusted off for publication with an announcement earlier this year. According to that statement, Lee's attorney, Tonja Carter, had recently unearthed a Watchman manuscript attached to a typescript of Mockingbird.

Lee's sister and longtime legal protector, Alice, died months before, leading some to question the motives behind the timing — and whether or not Lee, 89, was being taken advantage of.

And just last week, The New York Times reported "yet another strange twist" to the origin story of Go Set a Watchman. Although Carter says she happened upon the manuscript last August:

"Another narrative has emerged that suggests the discovery may have happened years earlier, in October 2011, when Justin Caldwell, a rare books expert from Sotheby's auction house, flew to Alabama to meet with Ms. Carter and Samuel Pinkus, then Ms. Lee's literary agent, to appraise a 'Mockingbird' manuscript for insurance and other purposes."

Even as the alleged conspiracies swirl, few readers appeared to let them distract from the bombshell that lurks within the book itself. Despite the opening chapter's somewhat surprising farce and physical comedy — including an embarrassing run-in with a foldup bed — the light-hearted open was brought low by tragedy with one clean, brief dagger-blow by Lee.

(Here, though, a spoiler alert! -- in case spoilers even exist in a first chapter.)

Jem, Scout's brother, is dead.

"Just about that time," goes the death notice of sorts, "Jean Louise's brother dropped dead in his tracks one day, and after the nightmare of that was over, Atticus, who had always thought of leaving his practice to his son, looked around for another young man."

That's right: Lee pulls a Virginia Woolf and dispatches him in the space of a single offhand phrase. And so she leaves her reader suspended, just like Jean Louise, caught between homecoming and the shock of the new.

But why are you still reading this? I've stepped on Lee's toes long enough; go read the chapter yourself. Tuesday arrives soon.

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