Mills, Marja. The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee. New York: Penguin Press, 2014. Print.
image from: www.washingtonpost.com
In 2001, journalist Marja Mills was on an assignment. The city of Chicago was participating in a One City, One Book initiative and To Kill a Mockingbird was the book chosen. "The idea was to get Chicagoans in very corner of the city reading and discussing the same book" (Mills 4). Mills was to travel to Monroeville, Alabama and gather information about Harper Lee. What happened while there is the amazing story Mills reports in this book. Alice and Harper invite Marja into their inner circle. They share meals, books, and stories with each other. They build a friendship. How wonderful that Lee trusts Mills with her story! Eventually, Mills even rents the house right next door to the Lee sisters.
While reading this, I felt like I was Mills and allowed into the inner circle. At times, I was even jealous that it was Mills and not me!
If you haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird (Well, you should!), you get a sense of the book through Mills' insertion of quotes and summary. She also references the movie.
A funny thing that I learned was that Lee said she liked Flannery O'Connor less (than other Southern writers) because "O'Connor had once said that To Kill a Mockingbird was a good book--for children" (Mills 79). HA! Flannery O'Connor is one of my favorite Southern gothic writers. Nelle tried to make sure that Marja read other Southern writers to understand the area. "Nelle referred to Faulkner as much as, probably more than, any other Southern writer" [another of my favorites!] and once "lamented the rise of what might politely be called redneck culture in the South... 'They're the Snopes,' Nelle said" (qtd. in Mills 232). FUNNY! Mills writes that Harper "tossed out literary references as easily as some might recite their own phone numbers" (Mills 232).
Another thing I learned from this book is the origin of Harper's name. After Louise was born, "she failed to thrive" and Francis was so distraught she had a "nervous disorder" (Mills 180). Dr. Harper, a specialist, helped. "So deep was A.C. and Frances's gratitude to Dr. Harper that when [the next baby was delivered], the parents gave her the middle name of Harper" (Mills 182). Harper used this name on the novel so that it would not be mispronounced or misspelled (Mills 224).
I appreciated learning about Lee's personality through Mills' book. One example is when Lee says, "'I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it'" (qtd. in Mills 80). I agree. Lee was not concerned with wealth and fame. "The fortune she earned from the book did afford her the opportunity to live her life...and that was something she cared about, deeply: the ability to live her life on her own terms" (Mills 121). I also liked seeing that the Lee sisters were always learning. They were smart and "language, as always, was play" (Mills 173). There are numerous examples of this in the stories Alice and Harper share with Mills.
There is a "Truman Capote" chapter, as the two writers were friends. However, that friendship that began in childhood became strained. An interesting anecdote from this chapter, though, is when Truman and a girl named Martha decided to run away (Truman was 12 and Martha 16), they were sent back home. Years later, it turns out that Martha was a murderer. "Known as the Lonely Hearts Killers, their crimes were sensationalized in the popular detective magazines of the day" (Mills 166).
Again, I felt like I was sitting in the car with the ladies. I could hear their scratchy voices and see their practical clothing. I could appreciate their routines and how Marja understood that any time spent with these ladies was precious. I'm so glad that she has the Lee's blessing in writing this book, and that Harper's fans get a better sense of who she really is. I can tell that Mills is a fan as well. "It was another book I pictured on the shelf of those she could have written. The imaginary row of books that made me wistful when I thought about it. Wistful for what Nelle might have accomplished and taken pride in doing with her talent, with her insight. Wistful for all of us who would have loved to read them. But that decision was hers to make and she'd made it, however gradually over the years, for her host or reasons, starting with the difficulty of living up to the impossible expectations raised by To Kill a Mockingbird" (Mills 210).
I was saddened to learn that in 2007 Nelle suffered a serious stroke. If I knew that, I'd forgotten. Reading this made me do some research, but what I found was something about this book. I found an article that Lee did not authorize this book and that she did not spend time with Marja. WOW! It seems that either Nelle is mistaken or Mills is quite a fiction writer because it seems too real to be false.
Either way, this book was a delight to read (and I hope it is true). Another news story broke while I was reading this book that after 55 years, Harper Lee is publishing a second book. It is coming out this summer. Of course, I will read it.
Book Within a Book-To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee