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February 03, 2015

A Book I've Been Waiting Decades For

I shocked my students this afternoon when I checked my email.

I let out a scream worthy of a ten-year-old girl at a Justin Bieber concert.

A sequel -- of sorts -- to one of my favorite books is soon to be published.

Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman will be published this summer.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" will not be Harper Lee's only published book after all.

Publisher Harper announced Tuesday that "Go Set a Watchman," a novel the Pulitzer Prize-winning author completed in the 1950s and put aside, will be released July 14. Rediscovered last fall, "Go Set a Watchman" is essentially a sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird," although it was finished earlier. The 304-page book will be Lee's second, and the first new work in more than 50 years.

The publisher plans a first printing of 2 million copies.

"In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called 'Go Set a Watchman,'" the 88-year-old Lee said in a statement issued by Harper. "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.

"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."

Financial terms were not disclosed. The deal was negotiated between Carter and the head of Harper's parent company, Michael Morrison of HarperCollins Publishers. "Watchman" will be published in the United Kingdom by William Heinemann, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

According to publisher Harper, Carter came upon the manuscript at a "secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'" The new book is set in Lee's famed Maycomb, Alabama 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."

Twenty-one years ago, back when I was an English teacher, I taught "To Kill A Mockingbird" for the first time. Actually, I should be a bit more honest -- teaching four different classes in three different departments, I read that book for the first time and explored it along with a class of ninth graders who were consigned to the class of an overwhelmed first-year teacher. I remember very little else from that year -- but I fell in love with the book.

A couple of years later, in a different school in a different state, I was blessed to teach the book again from a more mature perspective, tying the novel in with both the setting of the story and the era in which it was published. The major observation for my teacher evaluation occurred during that unit, and it earned me high praise from my principal for being "a new white teacher knowledgeable enough to teach that material well and crazy enough to do so with a black administrator in the room".

In all those years of teaching the novel, I never had a single student get my extra credit question correct -- "According to the narrator, what story is this book telling?" I'll share the correct answer at the end of this post.

And while I may have left the English Department thirteen years ago to teach History, Government, and Economic, I still treat myself to a return visit to Maycomb every year and imagine the changes that might have come along in the following decades of turmoil for an America that faced war, racial strife, assassinations, and social upheaval. I wonder about characters I have come to love -- Scout, Jem, Dill, Atticus, Calpurnia, Aunt Alexandra, Boo Radley and all the rest.

Go Set a Watchman will answer a few of the questions -- and no doubt leave me with a whole lot more. And I cannot wait to return to that little town this summer to renew my acquaintance with these old friends.

Oh -- the answer to the extra credit question is below the fold.

According to the grown-up Scout who is the narrator of TKAM, the story is all about how Jem broke his arm. The opening line of the novel reads as follows:

"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."





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NAME: Greg
AGE: 50-ish
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