Last weekend, in the days before Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” was released to a waiting world, my wife and I took an overnight trip into Lee’s home state of Alabama, a place that’s changed a lot since Lee first wrote about it.
Lee is most famous, of course, for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” her 1960 novel about a black man wrongly convicted of rape in a fictional, Depression-era town that resembled Lee’s birthplace of Monroeville. “Go Set a Watchman,” often described as a first draft of “Mockingbird,” hit bookstores around the globe last week.
Our journey included a stop for lunch at the Dairy Queen in Meridian, Mississippi, a fair enough laboratory for studying Southern culture at street level. Blacks and whites dined together without incident, more interested in the sundaes and chocolate-dipped cones on their tables than the color of each other’s skin. That kind of casual racial harmony repeated itself in Birmingham, as an African-American woman helpfully stopped to offer us suggestions on where to grab dinner. It was a far cry from the Jim Crow South of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Months ago, when Lee’s publisher was planning last week’s launch of “Go Set a Watchman,” it couldn’t have anticipated that the book’s release would coincide with yet another national conversation about race. The shooting of nine worshippers at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, reminded us that in spite of great progress, racial hatred persists.
But “To Kill a Mockingbird” is worth reading regardless of what it might say about intolerance. I avoided the book for a long time because I knew that it dealt with a grave injustice that seemed deeply uncomfortable to confront. Its subject matter seemed, at first glance, like an earnest exercise in civic duty, and duty can be a dry excuse to open a novel after a long day.
What I discovered — what millions of readers have discovered — is that despite its central tragedy, “To Kill a Mockingbird” also has a lot of joy in it, even humor. I won’t quote those prized passages here; once I start citing favorite “Mockingbird” lines, I have a hard time stopping.
I’m also hoping for drama leavened by levity, for prose touched by poetry, within the pages of “Go Set a Watchman.” In the first chapter, the lovable tomboy Scout of “Mockingbird,” now grown up as Jean Louise, accidentally folds herself into a train bunk, a scene that hints at the comic relief Lee used so sublimely in her first published novel. I’ll cross my fingers for more of that magic as I pull “Watchman” from the nightstand each evening, although early reviews haven’t been encouraging.
“Watchman,” like the maneuvering that led to its publication, might be a messy affair. But then again, as every reader of “To Kill a Mockingbird” learns, so is life.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.