Sadly, there has been a backlash of sorts to the stunning announcement that a new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, written before To Kill a Mockingbird but set later and subsequently lost, will be published in July 2015. Unconfirmed reports that the ailing Lee may not have been fully aware of what she was authorizing began to appear on the Internet like algae along the edges of a swimming pool; such suggestions were quickly denied by various people close to the author, but algae is very difficult to clear away once it has taken hold.
Meanwhile, many began to express second thoughts about how a novel that may have been merely a rejected first draft of Mockingbird was now being billed as a “new” book, prompting concern that our memories of Scout, Atticus, Jem, and Dill will somehow be tarnished by this earlier version of their story.
Rumblings aside, though, the hunger for a new Harper Lee novel persists. We left Atticus all those years ago sitting beside Jem’s bed, confident, as Scout assured us in the book’s last line, “that he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” But where would Atticus be, and what would he be thinking, 20 years later, after Jem and Scout were long grown up? Such does Watchman purport to tell us. Whether we are giddy or discombobulated at the prospect of that unanticipated revelation, we are left with five months to wait before finding out what happened next in the lives of the Finches.
Over the years I have had more than one occasion to
compare a book I was reviewing to Mockingbird.
While waiting for Scout, many of us will surely reread To Kill a Mockingbird and rewatch the classic film version. But what about after that? How about reading a few of the hundreds of novels published since 1960 that have drawn on the mood, themes, and situations portrayed in Lee’s contemporary classic? I know that over the years I have had more than one occasion to compare a book I was reviewing to Mockingbird, and I was confident that many of my Booklist colleagues had done the same.
A quick trip to the advanced search page of Booklist Online confirmed the theory. The list below contains a few noteworthy adult novels published over the last 20 years or so that elicited comparison to Mockingbird. A subsequent post on the Booklist Reader from Senior Editor Ilene Cooper will gather youth titles of the same ilk. Gather up some of both at your local library, and settle in for some serious reading. Before you know it, you’ll be holding your copy of Go Set a Watchman. (What in the world does that title mean? Another thing we’ll have to wait to find out.)
The Bottoms, by Joe R. Lansdale
East Texas in the early thirties was in the throes of the Depression, but for young Harry Collins and little sister Tom—for Thomasina—it is a time of adventure. The woods are filled with all the excitement and mystery two curious youngsters need, but when Harry and Tom find the mutilated, decomposing body of a young black woman on a creek bank in the area called the Bottoms, profound changes come to the Collins family. As the town constable, Harry and Tom’s father, Jacob, tries to do his duty, he runs flush up against the virulent racism of the times. The subject screams Mockingbird, of course, but the real similarity is in mood, a childhood idyll ripped asunder, soft-focus coming-of-age jolted into sharp-edged relief by the unforgiving adult world.
Prince Edward, by Dennis McFarland
Summer 1959 was sweltering in Prince Edward County, Virginia, but it wasn’t just the humidity that had the locals hot under the collar. The public schools were closing—a daring attempt to defy federally forced integration. McFarland tells the story of that summer through the eyes of 10-year-old Benjamin Rome, who watches the fevered activities of the adults around him with a certain detachment, concerned mainly about how their activities might impinge on his life and that of his best friend, Burghardt, the son of Benjamin’s father’s black hired hand. Like Harper Lee, McFarland shows admirable restraint in telling his emotionally charged story, reminding us that history is made while ordinary people are cleaning out the chicken coops.
A Stranger in the Kingdom, by Howard Frank Mosher
In Mosher’s story of small-town prejudice and courtroom drama, the roles of Scout and Jem are combined in 13-year-old James Kinneson, with Atticus becoming James’ brother, sports-hero-turned-successful-young-lawyer Charles. James’ charming mother and fair-minded editor father round out a perfect 1950s New England family. Then a black preacher and his family arrive in town, James makes friends with the preacher’s son, and soon enough the patina of perfection surrounding the community and its residents proves only skin deep. Mosher, like Lee, is a lyrical prose writer, and that lyricism contrasts sharply with the ugly realities of the plot.
Time’s Witness, by Michael Malone
“Lord, the South. None of us can shake off all the old sad foolishness.” So says Cudberth (“Cuddie”) Mangum, police chief of Hillston, North Carolina, in this tantalizing mix of Harper Lee and Elmore Leonard. The book tells the story of the wrongful conviction of George Hall, a proud, black Vietnam vet, for the murder of an off-duty cop. When Hall’s brother, Cooper, is killed the day after George was to have been executed (a last-minute reprieve saved his life), redneck-turned-intellectual Cuddie reopens the decade-old case, hoping to expose the racist cover-up that was behind George’s conviction. Malone is a witty and eloquent writer, and when he has Cuddy express his hope for “as much peace, with as little injustice, as this sad, greedy race of creatures can be cajoled, trained, or bullied into tolerating,” we can’t help but hear Atticus talking.
Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell
Ree Dolly is a little older than Scout, but like Scout, she is determined to sort out what’s going on around her. Granted, Ree’s father, a meth cook turned government informer in the West Virginia mountains, is no Atticus, and the rival meth family down the road poses a much bigger threat to Ree than Boo Radley does to Scout, but the characters react to trouble in much the same way. Ree marching through the snow to confront the Redmond clan on their turf has a lot in common with Scout sneaking downtown to help Atticus ward off the cracker lynching party (“Hey, Mr. Cunningham!”). Ree is one of those heroines whose courage and vulnerability are both irresistible and completely believable—think not just of Scout but also of Mattie Ross in True Grit (1968) and even Eliza Naumann in Bee Season (2000).