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Harper Lee's Hometown Reacts With Joy, and Worry, Over New Book

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Among those most startled by this week’s announcement of reclusive writer Harper Lee’s follow-up to “To Kill a Mockingbird” were the people of Monroeville, Alabama.

The author is cherished there, and allowed to live in near-hermetic isolation while her hometown celebrates — and profits modestly from — her legacy.

“We’re just as stunned as you all are,” the head of the local library told NBC News Thursday.

As that shock wears off, it is being replaced by a complex mix of emotions. There’s the obvious swelling of pride and excitement in the town that was the basis for Maycomb in "To Kill A Mockingbird," which has sold 40 million copies worldwide and was made into an Oscar-winning 1962 movie.

But there is also concern about Lee’s involvement in the decision to publish a long-lost manuscript, written before “Mockingbird.”

Pre-orders of the newly discovered book, titled “Go Set a Watchman,” which features a grown up Scout Finch and her elderly father, Atticus, immediately shot to the top of Amazon.com’s charts and brought renewed attention to Lee’s life of isolation — and litigiousness — in Monroeville.

“Does she understand what’s going on? If you make her hear, she can understand what’s going on”

Many of the town's residents wonder why Lee, who stopped giving full interviews in 1964 and disdained the relentless marketing of “Mockingbird,” would endorse the new book. She is 88, reportedly nearly blind and deaf, and living in an assisted living center since suffering a stroke in 2007, which prompted her move from New York, where she'd lived most of her adult years. As one Monroeville native put it — on the condition that her name not be used, to avoid making the town seem unappreciative — “It’s apparent she never wanted this to be done, because she would have done it earlier.”

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The debate over Lee’s intentions has consumed not only Monroeville, but the literary world. It’s gotten so intense that her lawyer, Tonja Carter, on Thursday released a statement, attributed to Lee, saying she was “alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions of 'Watchmen.'”

Lee’s small circle of close friends had various opinions on her state of mind.

Two family friends told the Associated Press that Lee had been talking loudly with herself during her sister Alice’s funeral late last year. “I’m very worried and have been for a long time, restaurateur Sam Therrell told the AP.

But historian Wayne Flint told NPR that he visited Lee on Monday, the day before the announcement, and said she remained intellectually sharp, although she apparently forgot to tell him the big news.

“Does she understand what’s going on? If you make her hear, she can understand what’s going on,” Flynt said.

Among conspiracy theorists, the scrutiny focuses on Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, a longtime friend who took over the writer’s affairs from Alice Lee, a lawyer who'd served as a protector and confidante.

“We’re just as stunned as you all are”

Since the switch, Carter has restricted what visitors can see Lee, accused the Monroe County Heritage Museum of exploiting her, charged her former literary agent of duping her, and denounced the 2014 book “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee” in which writer Marja Mills documented her late-life friendship with the Lee sisters.

“There has been some concern over the past year, is it Miss Lee or is it her handlers?” said Melinda Byrd Murphy, director of the Alabama Center for Literary Arts, which is based in Monroeville. “I don’t have an answer.”

In Tuesday’s announcement, HarperCollins Publishers quoted Lee as saying she hadn’t realized the manuscript for “Go Set a Watchman,” still existed, but was “surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.”

Publisher Jonathan Burnham told the AP he was “completely confident” Lee was fully involved in the deal, but acknowledged that he had no direct contact with her. The deal, he said, was managed through Carter and literary agent Andrew Nurnberg.

In the end, despite the worries about Lee’s intentions, the new book brings an exciting new chapter to Monroeville. Stephanie Rogers, executive director of the Monroe County Heritage Museum, said she was “thrilled” at the prospect of promoting and selling “Go Set a Watchman.” The announcement coincided with the sale of tickets for the museum’s annual theatrical production of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Tickets are getting snapped up faster than usual, she said. “We’re just as excited about this as the rest of the world,” she said.

Murphy said she’s already pre-ordered the book, and along with countless people around the world, can’t wait to read it — even though it was written before “Mockingbird,” and could very well be of inferior quality.

“Even if it’s not the read we thought it would be, at this point, do we really care?” she said.

“My perspective has been this: I just wish her well.”

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