Petit Plaisir: No. 26 – The Mockingbird Next Door

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With each reading of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, my appreciation of her detailed imagery, of her devoted gumption to speak out during such a socially inflamed period and her skillful creation of characters that demonstrate the atrocity of segregation and racism, deepens.

And as an author who after the initial promotion of the book and movie in the early sixties, chose to stay away from the limelight and protect her privacy as much as she possibly could, the release of the first authorized biography of Nelle (pronounced Nell) Harper Lee was something I wasn’t sure would ever come to fruition.

Journalist Marja Mills expertly creates a portrait of Nelle Harper Lee and her small southern Alabama town in The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee in which the myths are set straight and the appreciation and admiration of such a talent takes the reader for a journey that is free from drama and an absolute delight.

Beginning in 2001 and continuing through 2006, Mills had an opportunity that so many journalists and writers have only dreamt about for more than 40 years.  With Nelle Harper Lee’s older sister Alice permitting the first on-the-record interview that cleared the way to meet the author herself, a respect and ultimately a friendship blooms between the  journalist and the Pultizer Prize winning author who chose never to publish a second novel.

Many of the questions are answered that have been patiently waiting for answers – her friendship with Truman Capote, the mental stability of her mother – Frances, and why she chose never to publish again. But what captured my attention and is always something that my attention gravitates toward is her everyday life, and that is precisely what the book reveals.

In many ways, Nelle reveals herself to be an adult Scout (the protagonist of the novel). Fiercely independent, intelligent and insatiably curious about life, history, and unphased by feminine sartorial dictates. The gift of her novel, while it did bring unwanted and unexpected endless fame, allowed her to live her life on her own terms:

“The fortune she earned from the book did afford her the opportunity to live her life, from her mid thirties on, without having to worry about money, or holding down a traditional job. And that was something she cared about, deeply: the ability to live her life on her own terms. She answered to nobody. She had no husband or children. No boss. With her withdrawal from public life, she rarely committed to public appearances or other obligations of that sort. She did look to Alice for guidance and support, and was keenly aware of Alice’s high standards of personal conduct. But Nelle’s life, and her choices, were her own.”

As Mills is allowed access to Nelle’s closest friends and morning coffee with the author at her rental house (which is next door to the Lee’s – thus the title), readers begin to discover that Lee is far from a recluse. With an apartment in the Upper East Side in Manhattan which she visited regularly beginning in her thirties until her seventies (in 2007, at the age of 81, she suffered a stroke), she would make her home in New York for part of the year and return via train to Monroesville, Alabama, to live with her sister Alice (15 years her senior) for the remainder of the year.

Both Nelle and Alice conferred on the final manuscript of the book, and as Mills describes, Nelle seemed to exhibit a subtle excitement for the book’s release, if nothing more than to put into print her elder sister’s library of a mind (Alice will turn 104 in September) as a way to have on record the facts as they occurred, not as others would like to dramatize them to be.

Upon meeting Marje, Nelle contemplated why Alice had opened up to Mills so quickly, and then she revealed the reason – “Quality met quality”. With the high reverence for her sister, Nelle Harper Lee took a risk welcoming Marje Mills into her closely guarded world, but just as her instincts about how to write a novel that would resonate with readers for generations were acutely accurate, so too was she correct about making this invitation.

~Note: Much brouhaha has been made that Nelle Harper Lee did not consent to this book. There are many contradictory back and forths, all of which can be seen here (note Alice’s letter at the bottom, who is still “of counsel” at the firm). But after pouring over not only the EW site, but additional sites that all claim the same quote from the letter sent to Entertainment Weekly (which started the debacle), I can only wonder, would Nelle Harper Lee send her disdain via her attorney to Entertainment Weekly of all the news media outlets that would have gladly published her story? As a woman who subscribes to British periodicals (the Weekly Telegraph, Times Literary Supplement), The New York Times Book Review, New York magazine and local Alabama newspapers, EW seems to be in odd company. After reading the book, one can quickly ascertain that she was not one for keeping up with idle “pop” drama. I highly doubt that Nelle was behind the letter that was sent to EW, but rather someone else who may have benefited greatly. My two cents – take them or toss them.

~Click here to buy The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marje Mills (released July 15, 2014)

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