5 years ago

‘Mockingbird’ faithful expected to flock to Alabama when Harper Lee’s new novel debuts

(Video Above: Fans await debut of Harper Lee’s next novel)

On a sunny spring day in Monroeville, deep in the southwestern part of the state, there are mockingbird houses everywhere. In this town, home to Harper Lee, the celebrated author of the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” talk of Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo Radley and others is always in order.

This spring, talk for residents and visitors alike has been of the biggest “Mockingbird” news in decades – that Lee’s unpublished novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” a sequel to “Mockingbird,” is due to come out this summer. It is huge news in the literary world and, if possible, even bigger in Monroeville – proclaimed by the state Legislature “The Literary Capital of Alabama.”

Here, tourism, one of the mainstays of the Monroe County economy, is set for a big shot in the arm. Legions of devoted fans are expected to make the pilgrimage to this place where these beloved characters were born.

The quiet town square, dominated by the evocative presence of the old courthouse, is widely believed to be the basis for the town of Maycomb in “Mockingbird.” A play based on the book has been regularly on view in that courthouse since 1991, drawing thousands from all over the world to this friendly hamlet. The courthouse itself has been turned into a museum filled with, among other things, photos of Gregory Peck and the cast of the acclaimed movie adaptation of the novel, and of the various members of the play’s cast over the years.

“I would say everyone is excited about that new book,” says Sandy Smith, executive director of the Monroeville Monroe County Chamber of Commerce. “I mean how many books today are printed in a two-million volume first edition?”

When the news emerged about “Go Set a Watchman,” the chamber staff was at an expo in Orange Beach. Smith says that 4,000 visitors came through the chamber’s booth “and almost every one of them had something to ask about this new book of Harper Lee’s, which kind of surprised me because word had just gotten out. And when I got back here, from being at that exhibit, I just noticed that it seems like we’ve had a lot more people just randomly coming into the town to visit and see the town and go to the museum. It seems like that has increased a lot.”

It also appears, Smith notes, there are people who are particularly excited to buy the book from Lee’s hometown. “We have this little bookstore called Ol’ Curiosities and Book [Shoppe] and they’re down on West Claiborne Street. They have pre-sold 5,000 copies of this book. Well, you know,” she says, “the population of Monroeville is a little over 6,000. So that shows you the impact that that new book has had, coupled with “To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

Monroeville residents are used to tourists. Some 30,000 people visit the town each year.

Tourism brings in more than $8.4 million a year to Monroe County, according to the Alabama Tourism Department, and almost $114,000 through the Alabama state lodging tax. While that’s far less money than Monroe County’s heavy industry, it is important for both the bottom line and the community’s public image.

The folks who deal with outsiders the most, the ones downtown at the chamber and the old Monroe County Courthouse and the public library and the shops, welcome strangers with the kind of Southern charm that’s convincingly sweet, not saccharin, not – as Southerners like to say – put on.

When they talk about their town, its most famous living resident and all her literary creation has brought to them, it’s with earnestness and pride.

“I love the, I guess, just the humanity of everyone, being able to understand everyone and knowing where they come from,” says Stephanie Rogers, executive director of the Monroe County Museum. “People are such neighbors around here. I was telling a group that came in … last week, that you know, there is a part in “To Kill a Mockingbird” where Miss Maudie says ‘Neighbors bring food with death, and flowers with sickness,’ and she goes on to talk about Boo Radley being their neighbor. But people still do that here.”

Rogers grew up in Monroeville but went away to college. When she got married, she and her husband wanted to move back to her hometown. That’s not an uncommon story in Monroeville.

It must be said that locals will point out that Nelle Harper Lee isn’t their only claim to literary fame. Her childhood friend Truman Capote also spent time in Monroeville. Novelist Mark Childress and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Cynthia Tucker also hail from Monroeville. The Alabama Writers Symposium annually takes place in town.

Monroeville and the surrounding county also have a long industrial heritage. Vanity Fair Mills, the largest textile manufacturer in the world, was once the town’s biggest employer. The mill is closed, but Fruit of the Loom, the company that bought Vanity Fair, has a distribution center here. Wood and wood products like paper remain the biggest industry in Monroe County, even though many, many jobs have been lost over the years, Smith says. She adds that the city and the county are working hard to bring more industry into the community.

But it seems unquestionable that Lee’s literary legacy and the tourism it has spawned is what put Monroeville on the map for most of its visitors.

“I would be the one who would stand on the middle of the courthouse square and shout it from a pedestal: Tourism is our industry right now,” Rogers says. “I firmly believe it. Yeah, timber is huge and you could probably show me figures that would completely rebuff what I’m saying to you,” but tourism – mostly around “Mockingbird” – has turned Monroeville into a tourist Mecca, and put it on many literary travelers’ must-do lists.

After all, this is a town boasting a Mockingbird Inn and Suites, Radley’s Fountain Grill, and the Maycomb Mall antique store. There is a plaque near the old courthouse dedicated by the Alabama State Bar to Atticus Finch, replete with the kind of eloquent summation of the man and his virtues that would make a living lawyer flush with pride. And there is a picture of a mockingbird on the logo of the city and the Monroeville Monroe County Chamber of Commerce.

Not surprisingly then, the town’s love for “Mockingbird” and concern for respecting the wishes and the privacy of its author leans demonstrably to the protective side.

It seems the townsfolk are keeping a watchful eye on Lee’s right to be left alone.

“Oh, my gosh, yes,” Smith says. “Very protective of her. We’re proud of her; she’s our most famous citizen. We are protective of her. We respect her. We try to honor her.

“Everything we do is to be respectful of her wishes but at the same time to celebrate what she’s written because it’s had such an enormous impact,” she says. “It’s influenced me. It’s influenced my children. Our family life. It’s just a huge influence on us.”

Smith used to speak to Lee when she would see her around town. “I’d say, ‘Hi, Miss Lee.’ Did we ever discuss anything about the book? No way!” she says with a laugh. “But as far as having lunch at the Sweet Tooth Bakery – ‘How’s the food?’ – yes.”

Local lore has it that discussing “Mockingbird” with Lee is just not something you do, says Annie Hill, director of operations at the museum in the old courthouse. Hill, who has not met Lee, has heard the story from others. “You don’t just run out and say, ‘Hey Miss Lee, I’m Annie Hill.’ She likes her privacy and we like giving it to her.”

Still, there are lots of stories about how Lee used to come into town regularly. She used to, for instance, come down to the Monroe County Library for book signings – for other authors, says Bunny Nobles, the head librarian. “We’re real proud of Nelle,” she says. “She’s the most unpretentious, private person you can imagine.”

Nobles, whose father and sister once served as mayors of Monroeville, recalls that “Nelle” was a childhood friend and classmate of her sister’s.

“Nelle used to come home with Anne and said she really loved my mother, because Mama ­– my mother was real entertaining and charming, if I do say so, she was – and my mother had taken the player piano out of my grandmother’s old hotel. And she and Nelle would sit there and play and sing and have a good time.

“So in Mama’s “Mockingbird” she put, ‘To the World’s Greatest Soprano,’ referring to Mama, and ‘To the World’s Most Distinguished Mayor.’”

Nobles also has another connection to the “Mockingbird” legacy: The library is the former LaSalle Hotel, once owned by her grandmother. Peck stayed there for 10 days when he was researching the role of Atticus Finch, which won him an Oscar. The place where he slept is now called “the paperback room,” Nobles says.

“He did! He and his wife Veronique stayed right up on the second floor in the paperback room. We need to put a plaque. … We have a big claim to fame.

“I was a young teenager, and I remember, I think our parents were a lot more excited about Gregory, especially the ladies. … The town,” she remembers, “was abuzz.”

In more recent weeks, Monroeville has been abuzz with a controversy over the “Mockingbird” play. Dramatic Publishing, the Illinois company that has owned the rights to the play, had threatened to pull the plug on the production starting in 2016. But in late April the company announced that Lee had formed a nonprofit, the Mockingbird Company, which will begin putting on the show – still featuring the hometown Mockingbird Players – next year.

Performances for the play, which runs from mid-April through mid-May, were sold out through the final show of this season, May 16. Part of the reason is excitement over “Go Set a Watchman.”

When the new novel comes out July 14, the town and the county expect to have a big celebration for what will no doubt become Lee’s second bestseller, for her legacy, her community and the throngs of her fans from all over the world. But the plans are still forming; folks in Monroeville say they want to see what publisher Harper Collins wants to do, and most of all, to make sure they’re respectful of Lee’s wishes.

The new book will bring new visitors to Monroeville, boosting the economy and introducing some to a town they think they know from “Mockingbird.” They may be surprised that unlike many tourist areas, Monroeville would love for some of them to stay and find a home.

New people, bringing their businesses and investing in the community, could do a lot for Monroeville, Rogers says. “We would love for people to stay.”

Anyone willing to trade life in the big city will find what keeps drawing people who grew up here to come back: a pleasant way of life, Smith says.

“We are a friendly town,” she says “We treat people the way we want people to treat us. So the best thing I can say about this town is if you come here you’re going to find a lot of friends, you’re going to have a good quality of life, and it’s a great place to raise a family.”

This article by Nick Patterson originally appeared on the Alabama NewsCenter.

10 hours ago

Mayor Randall Woodfin throws down the gauntlet at Birmingham Business Alliance meeting

BIRMINGHAM — Delivering opening remarks at the Birmingham Business Alliance’s (BBA) annual meeting on Wednesday, Magic City Mayor Randall Woodfin challenged the region’s business leaders to stop being so “risk averse.”

Woodfin opened his speech with words of praise for outgoing BBA chairwoman Nancy Goedecke and incoming chairman Jim Gorrie.

He then transitioned into a call-to-action.

“Usually I would get up here and give you all some stats about what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished,” the mayor advised. “I think it is fair to say that 2019 has been a good year for many [in] your organization — individually and collectively for our Birmingham Business Alliance.”


Woodfin advised that the BBA leadership is pointing the region’s business community in the right direction.

“And the question is: as members of this organization, are we prepared? Are we ready?” he added.

“I don’t have to tell anyone in this room that since the Great Recession… 60% of all jobs have only gone to 25 cities in America,” Woodfin continued. “You need to know that Birmingham is not on that list. So the question becomes, when you walk out of this room, are we prepared to invest in our competitiveness? Do we want to compete? Do we want to set ourselves apart and not be like any other city in America?”

“We don’t have to be like Nashville or Chattanooga or Atlanta or Austin,” he said. “We need to be the best versions of ourselves.”

The mayor outlined the road to getting to that goal.

“That is going to require us to shake off the way we’ve always done things… just based on the sheer nature of what you do, you’re risk averse. But being risk averse in this time as we move into 2020 under Jim’s (Gorrie’s) leadership will not work for us as an organization or as a city. Or for the future and present of what we want our business community to be — to attract, retain, grow and many other things we have to do,” Woodfin stressed.

“As my challenge I leave to the members of this organization in this room, that we are willing to stand behind Jim, just as we did with Nancy (Goedecke), but really be aggressive,” he concluded. “Really be the opposite of risk averse and be hungry enough to do something that’s going to be different to make Birmingham a place that attracts more businesses and for the current businesses in this community to be and remain successful.”

RELATED: Almost two years in, Randall Woodfin reflects on biggest initiatives

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

13 hours ago

Above and beyond: Regions associate honored with Better Life Award after learning sign language to serve deaf customers

Regions Bank on Wednesday honored one of its Alabama associates in a major way for going above and beyond to better the lives of the company’s customers.

In a story posted on Region’s “Doing More Today” website, the company announced Gayla Land was presented with the Better Life Award. This is the top honor bestowed upon Regions associates “for outstanding dedication and job performance, as well as exemplary involvement and commitment to the community.”

For Land, a Regions Bank branch manager in Dothan, the genesis of the award goes back to 2016. She was reportedly serving a deaf customer but wanted to be able to do so better, as communicating properly was a real issue.

“I felt there was something missing. It frustrated me,” Land reminisced. “I could only provide what I could write down. I couldn’t share the information in his approved language.”


The Regions associate turned that frustration into a solution. Land, on her own time, went out of the way to enroll in American Sign Language classes at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

However, her dedication did not stop there. She not only learned sign language herself but decided to strike up a partnership with the school.

“I fell in love with the deaf community and the language itself,” Land explained. “Then I told the school, ‘Let’s make a partnership to have them come into the branch for financial education seminars,’ and they agreed.”

The student subsequently became the teacher, as Land began teaching in sign language a series of lessons that cover money management, retirement, identity theft and fraud prevention. Her first group reportedly graduated earlier this year.

This is having a real impact on the lives of Regions customers with hearing impairments.

“They feel more confident in their ability to make financial decisions, and I learn something new every time they are with me.” Land advised.

Her commitment to the hearing impaired continued to be displayed Wednesday when she received the award from Regions. The company donates $1,000 in the honoree’s name to a nonprofit organization of his or her choice, and Land chose the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind to receive the money.

“They do great work providing skills and education to the deaf and blind communities,” she remarked. “I know they will make great use of the money to provide for those families.”

However, her journey is not done yet.

Land is planning to sharpen her sign language fluency by taking advanced classes.

She also used her new platform to urge others to learn the language as well.

“Don’t be fearful or feel judged. Just try to learn. Even if it’s just one new word every day,” Land concluded. “Your eyes will be opened to a new perspective, and you’ll be embraced by the deaf community because you tried.”

You can watch an almost six-minute video on see Land’s work in action below or here.

RELATED: Merry and bright: How Regions’ headquarters building lights became a holiday tradition

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

14 hours ago

Auburn’s Bo Nix named SEC Freshman of the Year, Derrick Brown named best defensive player

The Southeastern Conference’s (SEC) 14 coaches have voted Auburn University quarterback Bo Nix as the SEC Freshman of the Year and defensive tackle Derrick Brown as the Defensive Player of the Year.

The honors were announced Wednesday by the league office. Coaches are not allowed to vote for their own players.

Brown was also named by the Associated Press as the AP’s SEC Defensive Player of the Year earlier in the week.


Nix now holds the Auburn Tigers’ freshman record for passing yards (2,366), pass completions (200) and touchdown passes (15) in a season. The Alabama native also rushed for seven scores.

Brown had a monster season on the defensive side of the ball and landed as a finalist for just about every national award possible.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

14 hours ago

Rogers’ report from Washington: The season of giving across East Alabama

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Each Christmas season, I like to highlight a few of the kind things folks across East Alabama are doing for others.

Below is a small sample of ways our fellow Alabamians have cared for each other over the past year.

In Clay County at Central High School, a teacher, Amanda East, gathered the school supplies that were going to be disposed of from the locker clean out. Those items are now set up to donate to students who need them.


In Lee County, The Hallmark Channel is coming to Beauregard to present new homes to the 15 families who lost everything when the EF-4 tornado devastated the area.

Hallmark will also serve residents a holiday meal at Providence Baptist Church with Santa and toys for the little ones, too.

In Calhoun County, Dara Murphy of Rosa Lee Boutique organized a White Bag Project for individuals to grab a white bag and fill it up for a child in need. They are also taking clothing and furniture to 20 families.

In Lee, Macon and Tallapoosa Counties, Rep. Peeblin Warren assists 400 seniors with gift baskets.

In Randolph County, the Roanoke Police Department is holding its annual toy drive to ensure local children get a Christmas gift.

In Chambers County, the Christian Service Center collects food and toys to donate to families.

In Montgomery County, Woodland United Methodist Church/Town of Pike Road distribute food. Pike Road and Central Alabama Health Care Systems also distribute hygiene items for local veterans.

Reading these stories makes me proud to be from East Alabama. It is truly heartwarming to see our brothers and sisters across the Third District taking time to take care for someone who needs it most.

May we carry this attitude of service to others all year long.

Wishing you and your families a very Merry Christmas. Remember the reason for the season.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers is a Republican from Saks. 

15 hours ago

Crimson Tide’s Jaylen Waddle named SEC Special Teams Player of the Year

University of Alabama sophomore wide receiver and returner Jaylen Waddle on Wednesday was announced as the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Special Teams Player of the Year.

He is the first Crimson Tide player to be named SEC Special Teams Player of the Year since Christion Jones in 2013. The honor was voted on by the league’s 14 head coaches, with coaches not permitted to vote for their own players.


Waddle, who was already selected by Pro Football Focus as a first-team All-American at returner, led the nation this season in punt return average at 24.9 yards per return. Waddle had 19 punt returns for 474 yards and a touchdown, including a long of 77 yards.

The playmaker also returned four kickoffs for 152 yards and one touchdown this season, in addition to 553 yards and six touchdowns on 32 catches at wideout.

This comes after Waddle was one of 14 Bama players on Tuesday who were named to the All-SEC Coaches’ Team. He was actually named to both the first and second teams at different positions.

Juniors Jerry Jeudy (WR), Alex Leatherwood (OL) and Jedrick Wills, Jr. (OL) were first-team selections on offense, while redshirt senior Anfernee Jennings (LB) and junior Xavier McKinney (DB) were honored as first-team defense. Waddle was a first-team selection on special teams.

Redshirt junior center Landon Dickerson was named to the second-team offense along with juniors Najee Harris (RB), DeVonta Smith (WR), Tua Tagovailoa (QB) and Waddle (WR). Seniors Raekwon Davis (DL) and Trevon Diggs (DB) and redshirt junior linebacker Terrell Lewis were second-team choices on defense.

Waddle was named the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2018.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn