As the date of the much anticipated Go Set a Watchman approaches, interest has been renewed in the reclusive, and now very frail, 88 year old, Harper Lee. The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Chicago tribune journalist, Marja Mills, although imperfect, is worth taking a look at for a glimpse into the lives of Nelle Harper Lee and her older sister, Alice, who carved out a niche for herself in her father's law firm, where Alice continued to practice law until she was well advanced in her 90s.
In 2004 Mills travelled to Monroeville, Alabama where the Lee sisters lived in a rambling, old home and knocked on the door. Harper Lee's disdain for the press and refusal to give interviews since 1965 allowed Mills little hope in getting past the doorframe of the Lee home, but to her surprise, she did. There seemed to be an immediate chemistry and trust that enabled Mills to spend the next five years getting to know the Lee family intimately, ultimately renting the house next door to them for 18 months.
Mills claims to have been upfront with Nelle Harper Lee, known to her friends and family as Nelle, about her ambition to publish stories about the Lee clan. However, Dwight Garner of The New York Times refutes that claim saying that Lee never authorized it and was angry when she saw it stocked on bookshelves.
Nevertheless, Mills did share intimacies with the Lees, guzzling daily coffee at the local MacDonalds, taking car rides in the countryside, eating in local cafes such as Radleys, and feeding the ducks nearby the Lee home. That there was a friendship is not debatable; but most of the material in the book leaves the reader unsatisfied.
Disgusted by the public frenzy over her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Harper Lee shunned public adulation and refused to write another book. Mills does touch on this issue several times during the course of her work. For example, one night while the Lees and Mills were dining out, an immigrant child approached their table and just stared at Nelle. “It was impossible for me to watch Nelle's fascination with the subcultures of Indian families runing motels in modern-day Mockingbird country and not feel a pang, once again for all the other writing she (Lee) might have done . . . I couldn't help but envision a novel she could have written that included immigrants like those at the neighboring table with Nelle's eye for detail and character, her empathy for outsiders,” writes Mills. Although Lee comments to Mills at one point that she had said all that she had to say in To Kill a Mockingbird, Mills understood that Lee, an avid reader and historian, had plenty more to say on a lot of important topics. And indeed, Mills is right in that Lee's silence leaves a wasteland of what could have beens.
Another topic of interest that Mills does cover is Harper Lee's famous relationship with author, Truman Capote, spanning back to their childhoods. Lee and Capote often co-wrote stories on an old typewriter that Lee's father provided them with, one writing one paragraph, then passing on the prose to the other. Lee accompanied Capote as his “literary assistant” during his seven year sojourn to Holcomb, Kansas while researching In Cold Blood. Ultimately, the friendship between the writers died.
Mills states, “As far as she was concerned, Truman lied about people and belittled them as a way of life, and he didn't care whom he hurt.” Mills quotes Lee as saying, “Truman was a psychopath, honey.” Their friendship disintegrated due to petty jealousies (Lee won the Pulitzer for TKAM, Truman never did and the fact that Capote continued to spread the story that Lee's mother had suffered from mental illness.
Mills points out that “With time, Nelle's anger toward Trumlan was accompanied by sadness that his life turned out the way it did, that he seemed unable to put aside drugs and alcohol and whatever demons haunted him long enough to produce more of the quality writing he had in him.” Of course, the irony in Lee regretting Capote's ability to create more was her refusal to do the same.
Despite the lovely homilies of small town life in 21st century Monroeville, Mills fails to get to the heart of the matter. The questions that lovers of literature want answered about To Kill a Mockingbird are never touched upon. Repeatedly Mills reminds us that Atticus Finch was modeled on Nelle and Alice's attorney father, A.C. Lee, but she never explains in what way, other than that the two lawyers prepared wills for locals. Mills never gets to the genesis of the tragedy of TKAM; who were the Ewells? Who was Tom Robinson? Was there a case from which Lee derived the idea? From where did the story of the mockingbird come?
The only glimpse that Mills gives us is when she and Nelle were discussing Nelle's relationship with Oprah Winfrey, who wanted to designate TKAM as a book for Oprah's Book Club. Nelle, fearing the renewed public feeding frenzy, eschewed the attention and confides to Mills, “I'm Boo Radley.” And perhaps, with Lee now frail and failing, that is the best answer that we will ever get about the genesis of one of America's greatest literary works.