MONROEVILLE, Alabama (Reuters) - In the southern hometown of author Harper Lee, a freight truck unloaded the first of 7,000 copies of “Go Set a Watchman” at a small bookshop just ahead of midnight, minutes before Tuesday's release of Lee’s first published novel in 55 years.
A friend recently told Lee that the sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird" is currently the most pre-ordered book on Amazon.com.
“You lie,” she said, according to her longtime friend Prof. Wayne Flynt of Auburn University, who plans to celebrate with the town of Monroeville in southwest Alabama.
The elusive Lee herself, Miss Nelle to her friends and now 89, might make a rare appearance in the town she made famous, said Flynt.
“But don’t count on it too much,” he said. “She changes her mind a lot and doesn’t much like attention. She lives moment to moment.”
But the small town Lee modeled Depression-era Maycomb on in "Mockingbird" is focused on this moment.
At midnight, outside Ol’ Curiosities and Book Shoppe in downtown Monroeville, shopkeeper Spencer Madrie signaled to a crowd mingling with Gregory Peck look-alikes waiting for the sequel to the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Mockingbird."
"I’ve had people calling from as far away as from England looking for the book early," said Madrie, who will emboss copies of the book so folks will know it was bought in Lee’s hometown.
"But we had no special treatment, even in this town. We have to wait like everyone else."
People cheered when the shop's doors opened at midnight.
Among those waiting was Robert Champion, who said he wanted to take each novel on its own merit.
"I don't compare the two," he said. "It's not the same book. Nothing will take away from 'To Kill a Mockingbird'," he said.
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley has proclaimed Tuesday "Go Set a Watchman" day in the state, saying in a Twitter posting that the release of the new book "is an exciting time for our state, and Harper Lee is a great source of pride."
"Mockingbird" has sold more than 40 million copies world-wide.
"Watchman" is set in the 1950s, not the 1930s Depression era of "Mockingbird", but it was written first and never published.
Lee has said her editor at the time convinced her to turn the book into a coming of age story from Scout Finch's perspective as a child. She agreed and the result was "Mockingbird" while the manuscript for "Watchman" was set aside and apparently forgotten.
The new book sees tomboy “Scout” as grown-up Jean Louise Finch. Her now aged father - gentle, idealist lawyer Atticus Finch - is depicted as a racist and a bigot in a turn of character that has dismayed readers who have regarded him for decades as a paragon for doing right against all the odds.
Despite the changes in Finch's character, all day Tuesday the real Maycomb plans to celebrate. There will be public readings at almost every corner, lawn parties with lemonade and mint juleps, and "Finch" fries and "Boo" burgers on offer at a local café.
There will be walking tours of the domed 1900-era courthouse, now a museum, that served as the model for Finch's defense of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.
"It’s a full day," said Amy Hill of the Monroe County Heritage Museum. "Miss Nelle really put us on the map and we’re excited about the new book."
Flynt, who lectures on southern culture, will start reading "Watchman" out loud to any who’ll hear on Tuesday morning.
The book comes at a time when the nation is again in the grips of confronting the American South’s underbelly of racism after the slaying of nine parishioners at Charleston church at the hands of a white supremacist.
“The timing is accidental, but this is a conversation that America needs to have,” Flynt said. “When her first book came out in 1960, we were finally energized on race. It was part of everyone's consciousness.”
Flynt says fans of Atticus Finch might have trouble accepting the older incarnation of him in "Watchman."
“It’s a very different and flawed Atticus,” Flynt said. “You have an older man who was dealing with his world of the 1950s. We believed him to be a perfect man, only to find out that he has feet of clay up to his elbows.”
Flynt doesn’t expect "Go Set a Watchman" to be as popular as "To Kill a Mockingbird."
But he believes it will be more real.
Editing by Jill Serjeant