Monday, February 2, 2015
"The Mockingbird Next Door" by Marja Mills (2014)
Here is a book which is long overdue. Harper Lee; born Nelle Harper Lee; is the reclusive author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the iconic novel set in the little town of Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. Scout, the little girl who recounts the story, is really the author herself as a child. So much of the book is semi-autobiographical; even the little boy named Dill who spends his summers next door is based on Truman Capote, who really did spend the summers next door to Nelle Harper.
Journalist Marja Mills finds herself on an assignment about Chicago’s “Chicago Reads” program, and the chosen book happens to be “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Ms. Mills makes a journey to the hometown of Ms. Lee in order to get some background material for the article she intends to write. In her wildest dreams she never expected to score an interview with Ms. Lee herself. Others have tried and failed over the years and so she had no illusions on that score. She was there just to get the feel of the place. She got way more than she bargained for.
Nosing about a small town is never accomplished anonymously, and so Ms. Mills presence is communicated to Ms. Lee through the town grapevine. When the two women meet there is almost an instant connection which blossoms into an unexpected friendship. Soon, Ms. Mills is living next door to Nelle Harper and her older sister, attorney Alice Lee; a remarkable woman in her own right. She passed away just a few months ago at the age of 102, after having served as the town’s lawyer for more years than anyone really remembers. She worked until 5 years before her death; going into the office each day.
Her primary duty in life seems to have been to record the history of the County where the Lees grew up. The local Pastor once opined that when Alice passed on she would be taking a library with her. Her other occupation was to shield her little sister from the unwanted attention that “Mockingbird” bought into their lives.
The book is fairly short; but it is filled to the brim with all the things Harper Lee had wanted to set straight about her life and the fame that accompanied the success of her only book. She is free and giving on almost every topic imaginable, including Truman Capote, with whom she traveled when helping to write “In Cold Blood”.
These 2 sisters lived a relatively Spartan lifestyle by today’s standards. TV didn’t enter their home until 1997, when their caretaker moved in part time and didn’t want to “miss her soaps.” There were no computers in the house as late as 2004 when this book was written. Communication took place between the 2 houses primarily by fax machine. Cell phones were looked upon as an intrusion. The house, unsurprisingly, was simple and filled with books.
Alice is the more gregarious of the two sisters, and it is she who frequently accompanies the author as she travels the county searching for the past. The story of Atticus Finch and how closely his character resembled that of their father, attorney A.C. Lee is particularly insightful. There is much about this book that will remind you of the Delaney sisters book “Having Their Say”. At one point Harper Lee even suggests that as the title for this book; after all, copyrights do not extend to titles; but the idea is more of a jest than a real consideration.
Amazingly, and for whatever reason, these 2 women “took to” the author and even helped her to find the house next door for her to rent while working on the project.
This is a wonderful book; a rare treat and a look into the heart and mind of one of the least prolific authors of any age; as well as an insight into our own changing set of values. The author’s experience with these 2 remarkable women also has an effect upon the author as she struggles with a chronic illness of her own. As the book progresses the younger woman is able to draw strength from the example set by the sisters as they deal with life, seemingly one page at a time.
If you have ever read “To Kill a Mockingbird”; or only seen the movie; then you will want to read this book. And when you are through you will want to re-read “Mockingbird” again. It will be different now; somehow more intimate than it already was; if that is possible.
Note: The photo on the cover is of Ms. Lee with "Scout" on the set of the film in 1961. They are sitting on the porch swing which Scout shared with "Atticus" in one of the earlier scenes in the movie.