Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields, published in 2006, was really interesting, but is just a portrait, a slice of the life of Nelle Harper Lee, rather than a biography. Shields had very little to work with because Nelle Lee doesn't give interviews or talk about To Kill a Mockingbird and hasn't for years. I found his attempt impressive even though it does fall short of the scope of a true biography. In the end, I am glad I read Shields' book. There is some measure of insight into Lee and why she never published another book.

The profound effect of To Kill a Mockingbird is well documented. "Eight percent of public junior high schools and high schools nationwide had added the novel to their reading lists only three years after its publication." Alternately, it is also on "the list of the one hundred novels most often targeted for banning." Many people list it as one of their all time favorite books.

I was surprised at the amount of control her older sister, Alice, had over Nelle's life. When Alice repeatedly called Nelle to come "home" to Monroeville, Alabama, from her apartment in Manhattan, it seemed like way to much power to turn over to a sister. Even so, Nelle allowed Alice that control and more over her life in later years. In the end, Monroeville was probably one of the few places where Nelle Harper Lee could actually have some degree of anonymity in her life since the town's residents could protect her in many ways. To Kill a Mockingbird changed her life but also limited it because it is such a beloved book.

In the end, "Fame had never meant anything to her, and she was not prepared for what To Kill a Mockingbird achieved. Before she knew it, nearly a decade has passed and she was nowhere near finishing a new book. Rather than allow herself to be eternally frustrated, she simply 'forgave herself' and lifted the burden from her shoulders of living up to the book. And refuse to pressure herself into writing another novel unless the muse came to her naturally."

(I appreciated Lee's high school teacher, Miss Watson. "Grammar, she explained over and over, was not a pointless academic exercise, but a tool. Knowing the rules was the quickest route to better writing. Grammatical writing also was the key to developing a clear euphonious style of writing." This is a fact I would love to have instilled in a few teenage minds this year.)

An offer is in on the house. Any prayers for the negotiations are appreciated. I might come out of this with my sanity.

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