SUGGESTIONS FOR WEEKEND READING
Review: The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills
When Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills travelled down to the small Alabama town of Monroeville for a story on Nelle Harper Lee, she expected to receive the same treatment as every other journalist from the famously shy and reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird. She certainly didn’t expect 10 years later to be writing The Mockingbird Next Door—a memoir of her relationship with the Lees. Quite unexpectedly, she was granted an interview by Alice Lee, Nelle Harper’s 92-year-old sister and a full-time practicing lawyer. Mills was working on the project One Book, One Chicago. Harper must have been inspired by the idea or just pleased with Alice’s impressions of this particular journalist, for she contacted Mills and offered to have an off-the-record visit before she left town. Mills slowly built trust with Harper in subsequent visits to Monroeville and over time developed a deep friendship with the two sisters that spanned for several years—quite unprecedented since Harper was known for her distrust of reporters.
After multiple visits to Monroeville for Lee-approved stories, Mills decided to move to Monroeville to continue her relationship with the Lees after she was forced to go on disability leave due to her fight with lupus. With the sisters’ blessing, she rented a house next door to them for three years, during which time she was privy to the “real” Harper Lee and her family’s history.
Mills writes about the Lee sisters’ reading tastes and their infatuation with books. Alice, who never cooked, finally resorted to keeping books in the oven since she had run out of all other space for them. She describes their drives exploring dirt roads to see where they led, a pastime Harper and Alice had enjoyed all their lives; she writes about their daily outings to feed the ducks and Harper’s hobby of fishing with her friends; she portrays the two sisters’ disparate personalities—Alice, a carbon copy of her father A.C., upon whom the fictitious character of Atticus is based, is described as “Atticus in a skirt,” while Harper clearly adapted the character of Scout from her own childhood and temperament. Mills also records Nelle’s reasons for not writing another novel. Primarily, they rested on the unwanted publicity Mockingbird brought as well as the intimidating fact that her first book won the Pulitzer Prize… and she wasn’t sure her next book would live up to the public’s expectations (despite her tongue and cheek remark early on that she only wanted to be the Jane Austen of the South).
Mills also writes about Harper’s close childhood friend Truman Capote, their travels to Kansas to research what became Capote’s magnum opus, In Cold Blood, and their estrangement as adults. Another dear — and famous — friend of Harper’s was Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird … a role he describes as his favorite and the one he was “born to play.” Harper remained close with the Pecks ever after the screening, and Gregory’s grandson was even named “Harper” after her.
Harper Lee’s famous reclusively has made the book a subject of great controversy. While Mills claims that she had the full cooperation of both sisters — to write only what they sanctioned and to set the record straight on certain issues (such as their mother’s mental stability) — Harper’s lawyer submitted a statement on her behalf in 2011 denying that Harper was at all supportive. “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood,” she claimed.
Alice, however, contradicts this statement saying that since Harper’s stroke in 2007, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.” Mills emphasizes in the book that its writing would not have been possible without Harper’s sanction and cooperation. She also notes that since the stroke in 2007, Harper has not been the same person with whom she developed this great friendship. The book was released this past November, and the controversy has continued.
To further complicate the issue of Harper’s permissions and privacy, Go Set a Watchman, Harper’s first manuscript and the precursor to To Kill a Mockingbird, was discovered this February. HarperCollins acquired the publishing rights, and Harper was reportedly overjoyed at its discovery and future publication, which is set for July 14, 2015. She released a statement saying, “It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.”
However, there has been extensive speculation that Harper was manipulated into what she always swore she would never do — publish another book — by those set to gain from its inevitable success. Harper has contended for decades that nothing would induce her to again attract the onslaught of public attention that Mockingbird brought her. Mills even quoted her as saying, “I wish I’d never written the damned thing.” One can only hope that in her old age she has had a change of heart and is fully in favor of her contributing once again to the literary world. As for me, I have already pre-ordered my copy.
Despite its controversy, The Mockingbird Next Door was a pleasant read, and while not a biography, it presented an insightful memoir of a friendship with Harper Lee and leaves readers with the feeling that they too have gotten a peak at America’s icon.