Interest piqued by the recent announcement that American literary legend Harper Lee will be publishing a new novel? Want to know what the author of one of the most widely read books in America has been doing for the past 50+ years? Marja Mills’ The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee is just about the only option you have, but fortunately it’s an excellent one.
Lee, who was last in the public eye in the mid-1960s, has eschewed numerous opportunities to be recognized for her literary masterpiece, a book that helped fuel the progress of Civil Rights era reforms and whose hero, small town attorney Atticus Finch, continues to inspire readers today. Her motivations, as outlined by Mills, are certainly relatable: a desire to protect her own privacy and of those she loves; a distrust of those wishing to capitalize on her opus; and a general distaste for constantly being in the spotlight.
When writing Harper Lee’s biography, journalist Mills had to work hard to gain the author’s trust. The Chicago Tribune writer moved to Monroeville, AL with the intention of getting a few interviews and slowly developed earnest friendships with both Lee and her sister. Why did Lee lift the veil on her life now, why not live the rest of her days enjoying her privacy? Mills offers a few explanations. First, she wanted to have the story of the Lee family told by someone she trusted. Second, she wanted to set the record straight on a few things, namely any controversy that remains over who actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird (Truman Capote, Lee’s childhood friend, had once claimed credit) and some allegations levied by Capote regarding Lee’s mother. Lee and Capote’s friendship had a long history and had even blossomed into a professional collaboration when she traveled to Kansas with him in the early 1960s to do research for what would later become In Cold Blood. The pain of betrayal Lee experienced with Capote is palpable in Mills’ pages.
So how does (Nelle) Harper Lee spend her days? For much of her adult life she spent half of her year in New York, where she enjoyed anonymity and the cultural offerings of a great city. The other half she spent in her hometown in Alabama, hanging out with friends and her beloved sister Alice, who in her 90s was still practicing law and being recognized for her work in social causes. Mills makes Lee’s days of fishing, storytelling and visiting cemeteries in her corner of Alabama sound as stimulating as her days in NYC must have been.
Mills’ unauthorized biography of Lee paints a picture of a woman true to herself and her values, who had to struggle against renown in order to live the life she wanted. The author maintains a professional detachment in reporting her story and spent enough time with Lee to know her as a person, not simply a literary legend.
Still, she confesses to occasionally feeling starstruck during those moments in Lee’s company when she realized, “Oh my god, I’m fishing/visiting/shopping for groceries with Harper Lee!” Dearest to the biographer’s heart were their morning coffee dates at Mills’ kitchen table, commenced by the phone ringing and Harper Lee’s voice on the other end saying, “Hi hon. You pourin’?”
Formats Available: Book (Regular Print and Large Type), eBook
Reviewed by Valerie, Iroquois Branch