Scout grows up in peek at first chapter of ‘Watchman’

Reactions to the first chapter of Harper Lee’s new book, “Go Set a Watchman,” which was excerpted Friday, indicate that, like it or not, readers are paying attention.

“‘Go Set a Watchman’ has readers going ‘Whoa!’” wrote

“Watchman,” set in the 1950s, brings back the characters of Lee’s first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” 20 years after the action in that epochal tale.

The chapter was made available online, ahead of the book’s July 14 publication date, by The Wall Street Journal in the U.S. and The Guardian in England, who stole a watch on the literary event of the summer. It is part of a strictly orchestrated plan by the U.S. and British publishers to keep control of the book, while stoking interest.

HarperCollins released relatively few advance copies of “Watchman,” sent out boxes sealed in shrinkwrap, insisted they be stored under lock and key and refused to ship to most outlets until the day before the book goes on sale.

In acquiring rights to excerpt “Watchman,” the Journal had an inside track, sharing ownership with the U.S. publishers of the book, but the Guardian’s treatment, with its gentle, interactive illustrations by London artist Tom Clohosy Cole, won more kudos.

Online publication Slate waxed rhapsodic about the first chapter — “it’s beautiful” — but opinions were divided about the bombshell that is casually dropped about halfway in, an event that prompted comparisons to “Game of Thrones.”

“Reading the first chapter of #GoSetAWatchman and already my heart is breaking,” tweeted @LauraJBlake.

Lee is a native of Monroeville, Ala., which is thinly disguised as the fictional Maycomb in both “Mockingbird” and “Watchman,” where she stays in an assisted living facility.

News that Lee had written a successor to “Mockingbird” arrived like a thunderbolt in the spring of this year, news that brought with it claims and counterclaims of conspiracy, and even an investigation by the state of Alabama.

The controversy hasn’t reduced the desire of “Mockingbird” fans to discover the secrets promised in “Watchman.” Scout, in her mid-20s, has shed her nickname, is now Jean Louise Finch, is as contentious as ever, and just as contemptuous of fashion. (She wears slacks, a sleeveless shirt, white socks and loafers in the first scene. Says the third-person narrator, “Although it was four hours away, she could hear her aunt’s sniff of disapproval.”)

Jean Louise likes to sleep bottomless and doesn’t want to get married until she’s 30. Returning to Maycomb to be with her ailing father Atticus, she has matured, we find out, from “an overalled, fractious, gun-slinging creature into a reasonable facsimile of a human being.”

That language seems to bear out agent Andrew Nurnberg’s recent comment on the book: “You open the first page and you know: This is Harper Lee.”