When it was announced that Harper Lee’s long-anticipated second novel Go Set a Watchman was going to be published, the initial reaction was nothing short of gleeful. To Kill a Mockingbird is arguably the most beloved American novel of all time, and is one of the few books that doesn’t cause high school kids to groan when it is assigned. However, once it came out that the reclusive 89-year-old Lee may not have wanted the book to be published, and was perhaps being taken advantage of in her vulnerable state after the death of the sister who had been managing her affairs until then, the anticipation soured somewhat. Since its publication, the reviews have been mixed, perhaps affected by the taint of controversy.
If you hesitate to have your memory of Mockingbird tarnished by contention, or if you were yourself disappointed in Watchman, the books on this list offer alternatives for readers looking for something similar to TKAM.
Most of the suggestions are novels, but there are a few nonfiction selections as well. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is the memoir of a young lawyer working in the very county where Harper Lee was born. Stevenson is a real-life Atticus Finch, defending the wrongfully accused and exposing the ways in which race and poverty are still very much obstacles to justice in this country. If that sounds a little too heavy for your tastes, try Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of “To Kill a Mockingbird”; a more lighthearted offering that traces the influence of Lee’s seminal novel through interviews with novelists, historians, journalists, and other fans. The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee is a third piece of nonfiction, written by a neighbor of Harper Lee and with a backstory as controversial as Watchman.
As for the fiction, in Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, the fourteen-year-old narrator is neither living in the South, nor experiencing racism. This book takes place in the 1980’s, in the early days of the AIDS crisis and shares with Mockingbird themes of prejudice, fear and paranoia, but the bigotry here is directed towards homosexual men and captures the misinformation and fearmongering of the time. Like TKAM, this novel perfectly portrays a tumultuous time, and June’s voice is as memorable as Scout’s.
One of the qualities of TKAM is that it involves a violent crime, but the actual violence occurs off-page, making it suitable for all ages. Some of these books are a bit more shocking, preferring not to pull their punches when detailing the racial injustice of their stories, like the Edgar Award-winning The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale or Mudbound by Hillary Jordan.
For readers who do not wish to encounter violent themes in their leisure reading, there are plenty of books that share the same restraint and cutting-away as TKAM, employing a less graphic treatment of racial issues in their Southern historicals. Try The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd or Susan Carol McCarthy’s Lay that Trumpet in Our Hands, for lighter reads that still make their point.
The Little Friend is included because it is a novel from the point of view of a precocious young girl living in the South who is exposed to a violent crime. But more importantly, it shares extratextual similarities with Harper Lee and Go Set a Watchman. Donna Tartt wrote The Secret History to overwhelming critical acclaim and commercial success, and the bookworld held its breath, waiting to see what she would produce next. And they kept on waiting, until the inevitable comparisons between Tartt and Harper Lee were made, wondering if Tartt was going to be a one-hit wonder, albeit a giant hit. Although she took a mere ten years to write The Little Friend, compared to the fifty-five years in between TKAM and Watchman, the anticipation led to a similarly lukewarm reception once The Little Friend was finally published; a reaction that is IMHO based more on the bitterness of having been made to wait than on the literary merits of the book. Judge for yourself.
To Kill a Mockingbird is such a beloved book that some may find it akin to blasphemy to suggest that the books on this list are as sublime as their favorite novel. However, they all share something with Lee’s masterpiece; a memorable child narrator, a coming of age story set in the South, a narrative of racism or injustice, a story where crime and race play a part, a courtroom drama featuring triumph over injustice, or a novel that fictionalizes historical events surrounding the Civil Rights movement in America. Nothing can ever replace Mockingbird in the hearts and minds of many, but these titles might be good ways to pass the time in between rereads.