The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills, review by Shirley Wells

Fans of To Kill a Mockingbird are usually curious about its
famously-private author Harper Lee whose one-and-only novel won the 1961
Pulitzer Prize for Literature and was made into an Academy Award-winning
movie in 1962. That curiosity alone would prompt many of us to read Marja
Mills's new book about her, The Mockingbird Next Door. But the
controversy now surrounding the biography has catapulted it onto bestseller
lists across the country. Lee has denounced the book as “unauthorized” in
spite of the protestations of her sister Alice and longtime friend and
confidant the Reverend Thomas Butts. Sadly, Miss Lee's denunciation may
actually tell us more about her current mental and physical state than it
does about her participation in the writing of this biography.

Nelle Harper Lee, now 88 years old, resides in an assisted living facility
in Monroeville, Alabama. A stroke in 2007, along with near blindness and
deafness, has made the fiesty, independent author dependent upon attorneys
to manage her business affairs, a task her older sister Alice (a practicing
lawyer until she was 100 years old) had previously handled. Although in the
past the Lee sisters and their close friends had been extremely cautious,
refusing to speak to most reporters, Harper Lee's current legal counsel
seem to be guarding her privacy a bit too stringently and perhaps without
her full cooperation. As Alice laments in a 2011 letter to Mills, “Poor
Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her
by any one in whom she has confidence.”

In spite of their previous reticence, Mills found the Lee sisters and their
friends welcoming as well as forthcoming as she gathered material for a
2002 article for the Chicago Tribune, "which was later expanded into a book*. With their assistance, Mills even rented the house next door to the Lee
sisters, and their friendship continued to expand and deepen. She openly
took abundant notes and used a tape recorder, the presence of both
contradicting Harper Lee's later assertions that she had not cooperated.
Mills does, however, seem to be aware that the mercurial author's
permission might be rescinded at any time, as she explains in the book
that “Friends of the Lees predicted that Alice would be steadfast in her view of my
undertaking and Nelle would run hot and cool on her enthusiasm for it.”

In spite of this controversy, Mills has written an intimate portrait to be
savored by Harper Lee's fans, detailing the small-town life and the simple
pleasures so famously portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Lees live
quietly in a small, unairconditioned house, taking frequent drives in the
country to feed the ducks or fish for catfish with bits of hotdog for bait
and to eat at the local restaurants. Both sisters are hard of hearing and
communicate with friends and family by fax instead of the telephone or
email. They barely watch television (they've only had one since 1997),
Alabama football games being one exception. Instead, they read a lot and
take pleasure in words, recounting stories with that inimitable Southern
storyteller's ability to make ordinary happenings amusing and entertaining.
This humble lifestyle may seem a bit eccentric when one considers the
millions of dollars Mockingbird has generated over the years, but since
there's no harm in it and it's their choice, what business is it of ours to
judge?

As Mockingbird readers will remember, Atticus explains to his children
that it's a sin to shoot a mockingbird since all the bird does is “make
music for us to enjoy.” In the novel, that mockingbird becomes an
unforgettable symbol of the innocent man, wrongly accused, as well as of
the reclusive Boo Radley with his “shy ways.” Now in her own life, that
mockingbird also seems to represent the ailing, elderly, and arguably
confused Nelle Harper Lee.

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee Cover Image
$27.95
ISBN: 9781594205194
Availability: This book may require a special order. Please call us for price & availability: (316) 682-1181.
Published: Penguin Press - July 15th, 2014