The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee
By Marja Mills
The Penguin Press
273 pages, $28
By Charity Vogel
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Harper Lee has long had acclaim – that rises, in some quarters, to veneration. She has had mystery, too.
The enigma of who she is, why she wrote – her one heartbreaking novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and then no more published novels after that – and what she meant by all of it has puzzled people for decades.
More than most other writers, she has been a riddle: remote, out of the public eye.
Which is why this major new book about Lee, by journalist Marja Mills, is so important. Any book that can boast of having had Lee’s cooperation – which she gave with varying degrees of warmth, throughout the extensive research that undergirds “The Mockingbird Next Door” – is going to be, for better or worse, a milestone in our understanding of the publicity-avoiding Southern author, who is known as “Nelle” by those close to her.
So yeah, if you’re having coffee at McDonalds with Harper Lee, we’re going to want to hear about it. Realize though that Lee herself has issued a statement denying cooperation with the book.
The two women became familiar over a span of years. Mills ended up renting a home on the same street as Lee, in her Alabama town, as she worked on the book. She was next door.
“The sisters had agreed that a book on their lives and stories was a worthwhile project for some time now,” Mills writes. “But I never knew if Nelle would be in the right mood.”
The good thing about “The Mockingbird Next Door” is that it gives us a detailed picture of Lee, born Nelle Harper Lee in a family of three sisters, who was 75 when she and Mills met in 2001. It’s an intimate look that we have largely lacked. This book also fleshes out a thorough narrative of Alice Lee, Harper’s stalwart older sister, an attorney who practiced into her 90s, and shows why Alice Lee was for decades so vital a person in the author’s life. The two sisters lived together, in a modest home in Monroeville, during the time Mills worked on the book.
• Scout Finch’s observation on the arrival of an aunt: “The remainder of the afternoon went by in the gentle gloom that descends when relatives appear.”
• Scout on her attorney father: “Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty. When Jem and I asked him why he was so old, he said he got started late, which we felt reflected upon his abilities and manliness.”
This is the kind of book people love so much that they name their children after its characters, or the author.
When her story begins, Mills is a writer working at the Chicago Tribune. When Chicago launched a program to read Lee’s novel as a community event, Mills was assigned to write about Harper Lee, from the author’s hometown in Monroeville, Ala.
In “The Mockingbird Next Door,” Mills describes in detail the sequence of events that led to her connecting with the Lee sisters in Monroeville.
In her first trip to the Alabama town, she talked to some who knew the Lees, and then went to their house. “I felt uneasy about knocking on their door,” Mills writes. “But I needed to be able to tell my editors I at least tried.”
Improbably, Mills spoke with Alice Lee in her simple home on that first visit. (Mills’ surprise at that turn of events radiates off the page, even now, years later.) And, the next day, she got a call from Harper Lee herself:
“Yes, this is Marja.”
“This is Harper Lee. You’ve made quite an impression on Miss Alice. I wonder if we might meet.”
There is a lot of genealogy and history here, about the line of ancestors that preceded Harper, Alice and their sister Louise. Much of it is riveting; some of it seems peripheral. We learn about Mills, too: how, in her 40s, she lives with lupus, which causes flare ups so wracking she must take to bed; how she considers adopting a baby from China; how she works on this once-in-a-lifetime story, that of a connection with Harper Lee. Some touching scenes in the book are those in which Mills, feeling the effects of her illness, and the Lee sisters venture about in Monroeville. As they move around town it feels to the reader like watching a group of the very elderly.
“I wanted a car that Alice and Nelle, Dale and Tom, and the rest of my gray-haired posse could get in and out of without need of a crane or orthopedic surgeon,” Mills writes, of her considerations while shopping for a car after settling in as a resident of Monroeville.
The writing here is serviceable, even pleasant – not Harper Lee quality, but that’s asking too much. There are sharp moments, witty and revealing ones, and often.
We see Harper Lee enjoy – or, at least, tolerate – the recent movies made about Truman Capote, which included actresses that played her. We get Lee’s frank thoughts on people like Gregory Peck and Capote himself, whom she summarizes as “a psychopath, honey.”
The narrative stays its course, for the most part, but it is broader than simply Nelle. Readers looking for a story about Harper Lee will find a story that is just as much about her parents and her sister Alice.
In the end, the chief weakness in “The Mockingbird Next Door” is not so much in what it contains, but what it doesn’t.
We see Mills ask Lee, and those who know her, the answers to questions about her personal life and writing that are on the sensitive side.
We watch as, while Mills’ relationship with the sisters grows, she at times doesn’t press them in those areas.
One example: When they visit a cemetery, Lee stops at the graves of some of the dead. “They weren’t names I recognized,” Mills writes. “She didn’t volunteer information about the interred and I didn’t ask.”
Or again, when trying to uncover details about a post-“Mockingbird” book that Lee seems to have been working on but stopped, Mills gets this answer to one of her questions: “’That’s for me to know and you to find out.’”
Mills follows that line with this: “I didn’t pursue it.”
This is why reporting and friendship can make for a challenging blend. We feel for Mills – she clearly wants to please, or at least doesn’t want to annoy or upset, an iconic figure in the nation’s literature, a woman who is the core of her story, and is advancing in years, into the bargain. In one sense, who can blame her? We might all do the same Late in the book, Mills tells of feeling nervous before making a road trip with Lee, and finds herself “fighting the urge to get a window sign that said PLEASE BE CAREFUL. NATIONAL TREASURE ON BOARD.”
“The Mockingbird Next Door” is vitally important reading for fans of Harper Lee, students of American letters, or journalists looking for a riveting yarn about the big story that didn’t get away.
And if, in the end, some mysteries remain – well, isn’t that what we’re used to?
Charity Vogel is a News reporter and the manager of The News Book Club.