Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Mockingbird Next Door

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills
Penguin Group: 7/15/2014
ebook, 288 pages
ISBN-13: 978159420519

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the best loved novels of the twentieth century. But for the last fifty 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 sister, Alice, 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’ blessing, 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 Mills’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 Lee chose to never write another novel.

My Thoughts:

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills is a highly recommended look at the life and friends of reclusive author Nelle Harper Lee.

In June, 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book of 34 year old author Harper Lee. "Through the experiences of Scout, Jem, and their best friend, Dill, Lee paints a vivid picture of small-town childhood in the segregated South. She also explored complex themes in the lives of her characters, from mental illness to addiction, racism, and the limitations society imposed on women. The story of small-town childhood and racial injustice in Depression- era Alabama garnered mostly glowing reviews and stayed on the best-seller list for nearly two years. In 1961, Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Academy Award–winning 1962 film version of the novel, starring Gregory Peck, became a classic in its own right."

After the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, (Nelle) Harper Lee never published another book. She jealously guarded her privacy and actively avoided all publicity or interviews for many, many years.

 In 2001 Mills was sent by the Chicago Tribune to Monroeville, Alabama to try to get some information about Nelle Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. The classic novel was chosen to be Chicago's first book in the new One Book, One Chicago program. Mills just expected to get some background information, write about the town, and set the tone for the city wide read. After gathering all the background information, she felt she should make at least one attempt to talk to Nelle or her (at that time) 89 year older sister Alice.

The sisters both knew from people around town that Mills was there gathering information and Mills herself had sent them information concerning the One Book, One Chicago program. Much to her surprise, Alice invited her in to talk and this started an unprecedented friendship. The sisters decided to trust Mills because they were intrigued by the One Book, One Chicago program and because, from Mills various inquiries around town, they were sure she wasn't a gossip. This insight proves to be true as Mills carefully shares only what Nelle deems safe. The tone of the book is all Southern charm and information about Nelle Harper Lee is carefully disclosed without a hint of gossip or scandal.

Mills was given permission to write this book from Nelle and Alice, and that seems obvious after reading it, although there was plenty of buzz around before its publication that it was going to be another unauthorized biography. Mills slowly and gently tells the story of their developing friendship and shares many of their recollections and stories, along with those of their friends. She covers daily life with the sisters (both are now in assisted living) in Monroeville, as well as with Nelle in New York City. Some things remain off the record. She does cover Nelle's longtime friendship with Truman Capote and why she never wrote another book.

Mills struggles with lupus are as evident as Nelle's feisty personality in this charming but careful account of Nelle Harper Lee. It is not, by any measure, a full biography of Nelle Harper Lee. Mills did not get an extensive on-the-record interview. It is, however, a portrait of her life during the time Mills interviewed her and lived next door to her along with whatever stories or information Nelle chose to share.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book for my Kindle from the Penguin Group for review purposes. 

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