NONFICTION: Journalist Marja Mills writes about Harper Lee’s small-town life in a debut that combines memoir with biography.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird” was not just Harper Lee’s first novel, it was her last. Yet that one book has taken on a life of its own over the past 54 years: High school students still read it in English classes; book clubs discuss it, and Lee won a Pulitzer Prize for it. The author, meanwhile, had become famously closemouthed to the press, and when Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills was assigned an article about Harper Lee, she was thrilled but realistic: The prospect that she would get to interview the reclusive author was unlikely.
During her initial visit to Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala., Mills rang the doorbell of Lee’s sister, Alice, expecting to be quickly turned away. Instead, the 89-year-old attorney welcomed Mills into the book-lined cottage, and soon gave Lee the go-ahead to speak to Mills. Why was Mills afforded this unique opportunity? “Quality met quality,” Lee told Mills by way of explanation.
After Mills wrote the article, the Lees opened the door to their closed life a little wider to let the journalist in. Over time, Mills became a close friend of “Nelle” (Harper Lee’s birth name is Nelle Harper Lee), Alice and their coterie of close friends in Monroeville.
Despite Mills’ internal conflict about the “uneasy tug between inquisitive journalist and protective friend,” she moved to Monroeville to spend more time with the sisters, with the thought of a book-length project in mind. This conflict is evident as one reads the book: There is little said about the possibly controversial aspects of Lee’s life, while most of the focus is on Lee’s life in a small Southern town, her family and the strong bond between her and Alice.
When Mills asks a question Lee doesn’t want to answer, more than once Lee responds, “That’s for me to know and for you to find out.” Often Mills does not find out; and neither do we. But part of me thinks, is a little mystery so bad? Or, as Lee comments when asked in 2001 about the never-ending attention she’s received: “Forty years of this gets to be a bit much.”
Mills covers plenty of other aspects of the Lees’ world in the book, with vignettes of day-to-day life, including coffee at McDonald’s and Lee’s request to watch Wallace and Gromit in “The Wrong Trousers.” One could read “The Mockingbird Next Door” as a sanctioned portrait of the famous novelist Harper Lee, or simply as a charming tale of a new friendship between kindred souls.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.