Today I’m reviewing The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills.
About the book (from the publisher): To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the best loved novels of the twentieth century. But for the last 50 years, the novel’s celebrated author, Harper Lee, has said almost nothing on the record. Journalists have trekked to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee, known to her friends as Nelle, has lived with her older sister for decades, trying and failing to get an interview with the author. But in 2001, the Lee sisters opened their door to Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills. It was the beginning of a long conversation – and a great friendship.
In 2004, with the Lees’ blessings, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, sharing coffee at McDonalds and trips to the laundromat with Nelle, feeding the ducks and going out for catfish supper with the sisters, and exploring all over lower Alabama with the Lees’ inner circle of friends.
Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their story, Nelle helped make sure she was getting the story – and the South – right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family.
The Mockingbird Next Door is the story of Mill’s friendship with the Lee sisters. It is a testament to the great intelligence, sharp wit, and tremendous storytelling power of these two women, especially that of Nelle.
Mills was given a rare opportunity to know Nelle Harper Lee, to be part of the Lees’ life in Alabama, and to hear them reflect on their upbringing, their corner of the Deep South, how To Kill a Mockingbird affected their lives, and why Nelle Harper chose to never write another novel.
My review: For all those who worry that this book might be an invasion of Harper Lee’s privacy, might be titillating, or based on supposition, rather than fact – fear not. Marja Mills has written a gentle, honest and respectful book about Lee’s life in Alabama. It’s about Harper Lee, yes, but it’s really about the Lee sisters, their friends, their extended family and the kind of life they chose to live.
Mills was working for the Chicago Tribune when the city chose To Kill a Mockingbird as the first book in it’s One Book, One Chicago program, a program designed to get everyone in Chicago reading the same book. Her editor asked her to go down to Monroeville, along with a photographer, to see if she could get some interviews with Lee’s friends, and to make the obligatory stab at meeting Harper Lee herself.
After meeting with some of the people in town and learning how very protective of her they were (they only answered those questions that Harper gave them permission to answer,) her questions and respectful reporting style evidently impressed them. Much to Mills’ surprise, on the day she walked up the Lee sisters’ front door, Alice, Harper’s older sister, already having heard about Mills, answered and invited her in. Thus began a remarkable relationship between Mills, Alice Lee (still practicing law in her nineties) and Nelle Harper Lee.
We learn that the sisters live an unpretentious life in a simple house filled with books. Reading is everything to them. They have a strong and loyal group of friends. They love nothing more than feeding the ducks or grabbing a meal at a local diner. And as Mills gets to know them, Alice and Harper give her access to their lives, their story.
Alice herself sat down for hours of taped interviews as she told the story of her family. Mills interviewed family, friends, the Lees’ loyal housekeeper. Nelle shared a lot as well, with Mills always keeping careful note of what Nelle agreed could be included in the book and what she did not want included.
All the while, Mills was battling Lupus and when she had to take extended time off from her job at the Tribune, she asked the Lees if if would be alright for her to stay in Monroeville and continue their talks. They said yes, even suggesting she live in the house next door to them.
This book is simply delightful, written at a slow and gentle pace befitting a story about a family and their life in a small Southern town. The Lee sisters, formidable and intelligent and fun-loving, were happy to get the chance to set the record straight about their family, their upbringing, and a host of other subjects. There had been a lot of journalistic conjecture over the years, much of it untrue. It was time to have their say. But all along, Nelle was crystal clear about what information was to stay private. And Mills honored her wishes.
As to the question, why did Harper Lee never write another novel, we never really get a definitive answer. Certainly, it is made clear that the pressure on Harper was enormous, pressure to be available to the press, pressure to come up with another perfect novel. After granting interviews for a time when the novel first was published, she quickly became wary of journalists. She wanted her privacy back. And she got it.
There is an epilogue where we learn the Harper Lee had a stroke in 2007 which left her wheelchair bound, eventually sending her to an assisted living facility. Mills visited her several times. But, over time, Lee’s memory deteriorated and she eventually ‘was not the Nelle I knew.’ Alice, who celebrated her 100th birthday with family and friends, still practicing law, came down with pneumonia later that year and is now in another assisted living facility.
This somewhat clarifies, for me, the statement that was made by Harper Lee at the time this novel was published saying she didn’t give permission for the author to write this book. She clearly did. There are volumes of notes and interviews with her, her friends, her family, and with Alice. There are taped interviews and conversations. Lee’s friends treated Mills like a member of the extended Lee family. None of that would have happened had Nelle Harper Lee not given the whole endeavor her blessing. Perhaps this is the kind of statement automatically put out by publishers. Perhaps Lee no longer remembers. I don’t know.
This is a remarkable look into the life of a writer whose one novel has had an impact on millions and millions. It’s a tribute to both Lee sisters, extraordinary women of accomplishment, yet down-to-earth as they come. We are lucky indeed, that Mills is a writer of integrity and that she got the extraordinary chance to get to know Nelle Harper Lee and Alice Lee.
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