Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Mockingbird Next Door

Generations of readers love Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The movie is one of my all time favorites. I loved Scout in the ham costume, because I was a grape in a play in the fourth grade in Pineland Texas. I felt connected with Scout for the kind of fun, kind of humiliating thrill of it. I didn't get assaulted on the way home that night, but I did fall during my little dance. I ruined my green hose and got a splinter in my knee from the wooden gym floor.

I love the movie because like Jem and Scout, I played all over town in Pineland with no fear of any danger. I'd take off on my bike and be told "Be home before dark." Oh to be skipping among trees as the sun goes down, the wind in my pixie hair, the cool dirt under my bare feet. Of course, those days are gone.

A new book released in July called The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee. Marja Mills, a  former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune, headed out for Monroeville, Alabama, like so many before her, hoping to get a story, any story, about Harper Lee. Miss Lee chose to separate herself from the notoriety garnered by her Pulizer Prize winning novel in the sixties. To Marja Mills' great astonishment, she was taken into the confidence, friendship, and inner circle of Harper (Nelle) Lee and her sister, Alice. It seems the sisters were ready to set the record straight. They felt that many lies had been told. Nelle particularly had a disdain for journalists, who just made things up when they couldn't get at the truth. Imagine that.

The journalist ended up renting a house right next door to the Lees. Over the course of about two years, Miss Mills learned much about the Lee family, and about Monroeville, the setting called Maycomb where the novel takes place.

I found it very satisfying to hear why Nelle chose to distance herself from the public, what she really thought of Truman Capote, Gregory Peck, and the different movie versions that have been released over the years. I hoped, and thought surely there'd be more about her relationship with Mary Badham (Scout), but maybe there wasn't one. Especially since Scout is on the cover. Regardless, the book was a joy and a delight.

The heartbreaker is that I had to go Google after I read the last page. I wanted to know if Alice still lived, and to see how the book is doing. Unfortunately, it seems that Harper Lee released a statement that she never authorized Marja Mills to write a book about her. Alice has released a counter statement saying that her sister suffered a stroke in 2007,  "can't see and can't hear" and would never have said such a thing. It hurt my heart for everyone involved. Still, I highly recommend the book. I'm glad I read it. The experience with the Lee sisters as outlined by Marja Mills is almost idealic. I want to be friends with Nelle, Alice, Julia, Tom, and all the others in Nelle's circle of friends. Still, so hard not to feel sad for the author of one of the most important and well-loved American novels.


  1. I would love to move next door to my subject for research for a couple of years. Wouldn't that be the ultimate? But I don't think I could talk my husband into it.

    The book sounds like a good one, but it's a shame Marja lived down to Nelle's expectations.

    1. Hi, Linda. It's hard to tell, from the outside looking in, just how much senility played a part in all this. Still a good read, though. We do live next door to our characters, inside our head, which is what makes us kind of crazy.