If you were excited about the long-delayed release of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s first novel, chances are good you reread To Kill a Mockingbird in preparation. That’s a long time to be immersed in Lee’s lyrical midcentury South, awash in racial politics and moral quandaries. And now you can’t just go cold turkey on the Southern charm and themes of equality and injustice—that would lead to some ugly withdrawal symptoms. So here are six novels that share some of their soul with Harper Lee’s books, whether it’s the setting and time period, the political issues, or a combination of both.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers
With a similar setting (late 1930s American South, Georgia instead of Alabama), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is another one of those rare books that remains as powerful today as it was when published in 1940. The story of a deaf-mute man named John Singer and the five people who connect to him in the lonely small town they occupy, the story focuses on human relationships and how we all see others through the lens of our own needs and desires. It all leads up to a heartbreaking ending that still has cynical teenagers and distracted adults bursting into tears in public to this day. If you read Watchman for the relationships between Scout, Jem, Dill, and everyone else in Maycomb, this is the perfect followup.
A Lesson before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines
Set in 1940s Louisiana, A Lesson before Dying explores some of the same themes of Harper Lee’s books—namely, the way African Americans were (and continue to be) treated differently, and unfairly. When a slow-witted black man named Jefferson is falsely convicted of murder, his defense lawyer objects…by telling the jury he’s not a man who could conceive of such a crime, but more like a hog rooting in the dirt. When he’s sentenced to death anyway, his family reaches out to Grant, a black schoolteacher, to help Jefferson die like a man and not an animal. The struggle that ensues through one-hour visits in Jefferson’s jail cell, as Grant tries to convince him of his inherent dignity and humanity, is affecting, angry, and unrelenting. It’s a book about race that leaves marks.
Other Voices, Other Rooms, by Truman Capote
Capote and Lee were real-life best friends, and some even question whether he had a hand in Mockingbird. It’s therefore totally appropriate to make this semi-autobiographical 1948 novel your next read. It offers an inverse view of the deep South in the 20th century, one that underscores its lush rot and decadence. Joel Harrison Knox (a stand-in for Capote himself) is sent to live with his father on a sprawling plantation in Mississippi, where a central mystery surrounding his father—who the boy isn’t allowed to see—swirls around a tough young girl, a transvestite named Randolph, and a mysterious “queer lady” who watches him from a window in the mansion. Languid, disturbing, and still shocking to day, this book shows the underbelly of the South while addressing another oppressed class of people completely ignored in most novels.
Native Son, by Richard Wright
For a change in perspective, this grim and unrelenting story of race and rage in 1930s Chicago remains a blistering and sometimes difficult to read story. Bigger Thomas is a poor, uneducated black man who finds work as a chauffeur for his landlord’s family. Bigger lives his life in fear of the white people around him, who he sees as a collective force of oppression instead of individuals. Over the course of the novel Bigger does some terrible things, motivated by a combination of rage and fear, but after his conviction and sentencing to death towards the end of the novel he begins to see the world in a different way, and sees a chance to find some peace in himself at long last. Where Watchman is lyrical and thoughtful, Native Son is angry and blistering—and perhaps just what you need to read next.
Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
Ellison’s complex novel offers a modernist take on racial politics that requires some surprising twists that sometimes veer toward the symbolic. At its core, it explores the same themes as Watchman from the other side: how can a black man be true to himself when every society he joins already has a predefined, and often denigrating, role outlined for him? The narrator of Invisible Man struggles to find his footing in the world, but is forced into expected roles time and time again, with negative and ultimately tragic consequences. It’s a bracingly contrarian view of race relations in the 20th century.
Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence
This is a play, not a novel, and the perfect coda to a Harper Lee reading fest. It tells the true but fictionalized story of the Scopes Monkey Trial, which saw a schoolteacher arrested for teaching the theory of evolution in a Tennessee school in 1925. Using the trial as a subtle stand-in for the McCarthy Era of the 1950s, the play wallows in the same languid southern climate as Watchman and underscores the power of one man who believes in the purity of the law, much like Atticus Finch. While Henry Drummond (standing in for Clarence Darrow) loses the case, his passionate defense wins the day in every other way, offering a nice palate cleanse for those of you disturbed by the older Atticus Finch as depicted in Watchman.