The Mockingbird Next Door
Life With Harper Lee
Author: Marja Mills
Publisher: Penguin Group
Includes an insert of a few select photographs.
Includes an insert of a few select photographs.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best loved novels of the twentieth century. But for the last fifty years, the novel’s celebrated author, Harper Lee, known to her friends as Nelle, has said almost nothing on the record. Journalists have trekked to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where she has lived part of the year 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 wonderful 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 and their 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 stories, Nelle helped make sure she was getting that—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 also a testament to the great intelligence, sharp wit, and tremendous storytelling power of these two women.
Mills was given a rare opportunity to know Nelle, 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 the reasons Nelle Harper Lee chose to never write another novel.
Many journalists and would-be biographers have sought long and hard to interview Harper Lee and many have been declined. In fact, Ms. Lee kept a fairly low profile for years, attending few events. Marja Mills was one of the fortunate few to have impressed Harper's sister, Alice when she approached her about Nelle and subsequently wrote a lengthy newspaper article about Chicago selecting To Kill a Mockingbird as a book that everyone must read. (See One Book, One Chicago). For Marja, this was only the beginning of a friendship that would later find her living next door to Harper, preferably called Nelle, and her sister Alice.
Marja Mills and the Lee sisters grew very close and over a period of 18 months, Marja met and interviewed Nelle's close friends at Nelle's invitation. Their relationship, the outings, the glimpses into the past are laid out for the reader to enjoy and we get to know Nelle as Marja did.
Nelle shares the reasons why she never wrote another book, though she had at first wanted to. She discusses her relationship with Truman Capote who grew up next door to Nelle and Alice. We read that Nelle was very happy with the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird and remained close friends with Gregory Peck until his death. Nelle allows Marja into her inner sanctum, sharing what she wishes and we feel there's more that we want to know but Nelle never did write an autobiography. The Mockingbird Next Door is the closest one will get.
In the news of late, there is discussion that Nelle denies giving permission for this book to be published. She refutes it, even though there is nothing here that would discredit her or her family or friends. This memoir is like a long visit with a long lost friend, written from the perspective of someone who has respect for the boundaries upon that friendship and for Nelle, her friends, family and town. It must be noted that Nelle suffered a stroke in 2007 which left her bound to a wheelchair and a continuing decline in memory ensued. Both she and her sister Alice, as of this writing, reside in separate long-term care facilities.
The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee is a small peek into the southern town wherein resides one spunky Nelle Harper Lee and her lawyer sister Alice Lee. The context for To Kill a Mockingbird is drawn from Nelle's life in this town, from her family and a great deal from her imagination. She wrote a classic that never tires, nor grows weary, and always, with few exceptions, leaves the reader better off for having known it. Getting to know Nelle just a little from The Mockingbird Next Door, makes me feel a little better off for having known second hand a little bit about this spunky reclusive author who has earned her rightful place among the most influential authors...ever. Though I yearn for more, I am satisfied to have had this opportunity.
See my review of To Kill a Mockingbird here.
Read Marja’s original 2002 Chicago Tribune story, “A life apart: Harper Lee, the complex woman behind ‘a delicious mystery,’” that was the basis for The Mockingbird Next Door. Link here.
Meet the author:
Mills was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin. She is a 1985 graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service; a lifelong interest in other cultures led to studies in Paraguay, Spain and Sweden. Mills lives in downtown Chicago and often spends time in Madison and her father’s hometown of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, pop. 3,500.