“Mockingbird” Sequel Saga Deepens and Darkens

Harper Lee's state of mind in allowing a second novel to be published is now the subject of an elder abuse investigation

File photo, Harper Lee August 2007

(WTNH)  A story in The New York Times this week has revealed the State of Alabama is conducting an investigation into whether beloved author Harper Lee was the victim of financial elderly abuse when it was announced she had given permission to publish a sequel to her perpetual bestseller, “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

I wrote about this last month, after Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker reported on the long, strange journey of the “new” novel, “Go Set A Watchman.”  The manuscript had sat untouched for 60-years, after being rejected by publishers.  They advised Lee, known to all as Nelle, to rework her tale of an adult woman and her elderly attorney father in the 1950’s, into a story about racism and moral heroism in the Depression-era deep South, as seen through the eyes of that woman as a child. “Mockingbird” was the result, and as the decades went by, it seemed to all that it would be the only novel Lee would ever publish.

Related: Second Harper Lee novel to be published in July

Then an attorney from a law firm where Lee’s sister and protector had worked until her death claimed to discover the manuscript to “Watchman.”  Last month, Harper-Collins rocked the book world, announcing it was publishing the prequel/sequel, with expectations all around that it would become a massive bestseller.  But almost immediately, serious doubts arose.

Nelle Lee, now 88, suffered a stroke in 2007, and many who know her claim she simply wouldn’t be capable of giving legal permission to publish a work she herself had barely acknowledged and never discussed over the years. Others, including HarperCollins and her literary agent, as well as personal friends, insist she was lucid and enthusiastic about publishing “Watchman.”

And so it went, until this week’s news that a doctor and friend of the author had contacted the Alabama Human Resources Department a month ago.  He requested an investigation to see if Lee, in a nursing home and suffering from deafness, blindness, and dementia, was being taken advantage of by parties anxious to reap the scores of millions of dollars one final novel by the great Harper Lee would produce.  The investigation, according to The Times, includes interviews with friends and caregivers.  There’s no indication if a determination has been made as to Lee’s mental state, or if the probe’s eventual findings will impact the scheduled July publishing date for “Go Set A Watchman.”

While it may seem a strange analogy, it makes me think of the National Football League, and its popularity in the face of the now-acknowledged fact that concussions suffered by many players can result in severe mental health issues and shortened life spans.  Watch at your own moral risk, one might say (the league’s immense popularity has so far been undiminished, at least as far as television ratings go).  Now readers who can’t wait to get their hands on another novel by Harper Lee, might have to ask themselves if they’re being participants in a multi-million dollar power play against a confused elderly woman, who neither wanted this book published, nor would ever have given knowing permission to allow that to happen.



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